Lukas Dhont’s “Close” is a story about a deep friendship between two boys that turns sour. If you have followed the Belgian director, you know that he knows a thing or two about visual language. Close is his sophomore feature, and at just 31, Dhont has made an inimitable, devastating work that feels like an instant classic even while you are seeing it for the first time. At its crux, it may be about the relationship between these two boys, but Dhont paints a portrait of such rich emotional transparency that it’s hard not to be moved by the time the film ends.
Dhont’s debut directorial- “Girl,” received acclaim and also fierce backlash for its portrayal of a transgender character who ultimately succumbs to outside pressures in a way that is deemed as an extremely problematic representation of trans bodies. “Close” is much more personal and free from the label of trespassing- this is a story that the director comments was inspired by his own school experiences. Both films are also related in their treatment: the characters are held in close-ups and go through a period of transition, whether physical or emotional. In “Close,” Dhont’s focus stays on the radius of these two boys only. The film devotes long scenes to locating the angelic faces of two young actors, Eden Dambrine and Gustaav De Waele, who play Léo and Rémi, respectively, and urges us to pay attention to their experiences and ways of expression. In this piece, we will take a closer look at the significance of these intercut sequences and how they cultivate the thematic foil of the film.
“Close” opens with a metaphoric introduction that ultimately tells us everything about the movie and what it will lead to, in a brief scene inside a hideout where we first meet Léo and Rémi. Both the kids are pretending to hide from the army of soldiers who might find their place. Léo asks Rémi if he can hear voices from the outside, to which he says no. Yet for Léo, these voices surrounding them threaten their shared space together. They run outside together, cascading through a field of violet lilies—that might just be the most beautiful scene you’ll see all year. Note how in the opening moments of the film, Dhont firmly establishes the ecstasy and innocence of childhood when everything else fades away in the near distance. Léo and Rémi are extremely close friends and spend almost all of their time together. Léo is also a lot freer with Rémi’s mother, Sophie (Émilie Dequenne, utterly compelling whenever required), and has a shared comfort with her about Rémi’s relative aloofness at times. The first half of the movie is so refreshingly tender and comforting that one almost feels protective of this bond that the two share. One shot in particular—of Léo and Rémi sleeping together, their limbs were thrown across each other—cuts deep. Dhont paints this intimate portrait of these two boys who are on the cusp of adolescence, and as they begin secondary school, their very palpable comfort with one another becomes a reason for homophobia. Léo is called a faggot, and a group of girls asks directly if both of them are a couple. Léo states bluntly that they are like brothers, so they are always together—Rémi is his best friend.
But the spell has been broken. Léo is suddenly aware of the way in which his closeness with Rémi is perceived. He begins to question it himself, wondering whether he should be that close to Rémi at all. It is puzzling to him, but it also points deeply to his place within the social circle of his school, where there are rigid, unspoken rules to fit in. He chooses to maintain a distance from Rémi and even joins the school ice hockey team. The ice hockey team demands Léo become a masculine, brute force-jostled with the shoulder padding in the outfit required to play. When Rémi comes to meet him during practice like a lover, Léo is horrified and embarrassed. In Rémi’s room, a playful fight turns heady and vengeful, intensifying into combat. It is the first signal of the breach of their friendship and trust that Rémi understands. The tears won’t stop when he sits at the breakfast table in the morning. He doesn’t say it’s the hurt caused by Léo, but Dhont leaves us with that understanding. The next day Léo goes to school alone, and it marks a final demarcation of their trust as Rémi confronts him in school. How could he leave him alone? He had never done it before. It leads to an inexplicably hard fight to witness as both Léo and Rémi break down in their outbursts of anger and frustration with each other.
Next, we know as Léo returns from the school trip, his mother is there to inform him that something happened to Rémi. Is he in the hospital? asks Léo. No, his mother informs. He is no longer with us. This news washes over “Close” like a tide of the sweeping emotional wave. Léo tries to run away on his bicycle and goes to Rémi’s house. It is suggested that Rémi committed suicide, but the reason is never explicitly spelled out. Dhont is not concerned with the needless exploration of Ren’s suicide, even though the emotional resonance of “Close” comes at the cost of it. Rather, he chooses to focus on the subsequent turmoil and guilt that Léo lives with. Unable to project his anger at himself, he keeps up the rigorous ice hockey training, falling down and getting up. The costume that was once an emblem of masculine boisterousness now transforms into an emotional cage, a corner where he can hide and get away. The passing of seasons is located within the subtext of the film as Léo helps his family with the farm. The plants are uprooted and sent to the factories, and the field turns shocking brown. Then again, the seeds are planted, and the plants are grown. Change is constant, yet the loss is permanent. Those long scenes of Léo on the farm signal work like a reminder for him that beauty is forever and needs to be taken care of. It marks the loss of innocence for Léo, who is thrown at the periphery of a devastating loss. The burden of carrying the guilt and grief ages him beyond his years, and he deliberately hurts himself during ice hockey practice to project that anger. It breaks his wrist. In the next scene, as the doctor fastens the bandage, Léo begins to sob uncontrollably. It’s a tremendous, terrifyingly realistic scene- of an individual yearning to break free from the face of unimaginable guilt and loss. Léo ultimately confronts Sophie, saying that it was because of him that Rémi died. It was he who pushed Rémi away. Sophie, although unable to control her hurt at the moment, ultimately embraces him in tears. It’s the climactic sign of acceptance that ends the agony for Léo.
Léo and Rémi’s friendship represents the other side of masculinity, which is away from violence, heroism, and machismo. In “Close,” Dhont paints a portrait of masculine intimacy that we don’t often get to see on screen. It is about the loneliness that men are subjected to in a society that favors men behaving with certainty, strength, and a lack of excess emotion. Only then can that individual be accepted and validated. “Close” is also about loss and grief and the cultivation of them in our daily lives. Léo has no choice but to live with the loss of Rémi; the void can never be filled by someone else. “Close” doesn’t compensate for this with melodramatic tendencies or fill it with a jagged sense of conflict resolution at the end. Léo looks back one last time before he chooses to move ahead. It is a veritable acknowledgment of the past and how it has become a marker for his growth and acceptance as an individual who has a whole life ahead of him. Léo doesn’t know what lies ahead, but he is ready.
“Close” is a 2022 romance drama film directed by Lukas Dhont.