Learning the Rules

Lukas Dhont’s Close

Close, by the young Belgian director Lukas Dhont, is a small film that makes a big impact, communicating adolescent suffering with lyrical precision.

Bosom buddies, Close.

That’s why it won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival and is one of this year’s nominees at the Academy Awards for Best International Picture.

The plot shows what happens when Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele), inseparable childhood friends, begin attending a new school and must contend with forces conspiring to separate them.

At first, the divide that opens between them is still easily bridged. But then it suddenly widens to the point where neither can cross it, a development relayed through a series of scenes in which superficially insignificant words and gestures become extraordinarily meaningful.

Some people have complained that Close takes a melodramatic turn halfway through, after which the boys only have a relationship in retrospect.

They would prefer for the story to have remained more subtle. No matter how well-intentioned, however, this perspective fundamentally misunderstands the point of the film.

Close is so powerful because it shows us the varieties of loss. By the time Léo must confront a loss so big that it threatens to swallow him up, he has been struggling for months with a series of small ones.

Dambrine’s acting communicates this superbly. Long before he gets the terrible news, we can see on his face that he feels it coming.

Even worse, he knows that he is the one to blame for this tragedy, even though there was little he could do to prevent it. In his mind, that’s what it means to grow up.

So does Léo’s refusal to express his feelings. Over and over, characters ask him how he is doing, aware of the loss he has suffered. Yet he answers with a shrug: “Ça va.”

It’s important to point out that the loss of innocence in Close is not triggered by war, poverty, or disaster. The two main characters come from homes that are stable and loving. Although their parents seem to have different class backgrounds, that isn’t what divides them.

So what does?

Gender stereotypes and homophobia flourish, even in an otherwise caring environment.

Although we see Léo and Rémi’s peers teasing them a little bit about how “close” they are, the film studiously avoids the sort of overt bullying we have come to expect in stories about same-sex adolescents.

Some of the schoolchildren are more careful about the boys’ feelings than others, but none are out-and-out hostile. And the adults who work at their school respond to the crisis in an admirable fashion.

Combined with Close’s bucolic setting in a bilingual portion of Flanders, the absence of any clear villain made me think of its fellow Oscar nominee All Quiet on the Western Front.

Superficially, the two films could not be more different. One is expensive, filled with dramatic battle scenes; the other has no need for special effects. One shows us how sensitive souls are ruthlessly dehumanized by war; the other reminds us over and over of its principal characters’ overwhelming humanity.

What Close and All Quiet on the Western Front share, however, is penetrating insight into the forces that make people do things contrary to their natures. The massive loss of life in the trenches was almost entirely futile. The losses we witness in Close are similarly pointless.

Once a mechanism is set in motion, however, it is extraordinarily difficult to halt its momentum. In Léo’s case, after some girls suggest that he and Rémi are a couple, his compulsion to prove them wrong seems like fate.

Significantly, Close leaves the question of the boys’ sexual orientation vague. While their love for each other is the kind that might lead to a sexual relationship, they are still too young for that to be a primary concern.

Indeed, Dhont has explained that, while he initially set out to tell the story of a queer character, he ended up concluding that it was more important to represent the sort of ambiguously close friendships that boys find it difficult to sustain as they grow older.

In a sense, the real tragedy in Close is that adolescence requires children to forsake the sort of intense and idiosyncratic bonds they have forged with one another in order to conform to a crude schematic.

Several of Close’s key scenes feature the flower fields where Léo’s family make their living. It was hard for me not to regard them allegorically, especially once I’d started thinking about All Quiet on the Western Front.

On the one hand, the fields are achingly beautiful. On the other, they testify to a perverse state of affairs in which flowers are grown by colour, in regimented rows, to be cut prematurely and sold on the market.

At the beginning of the film, Léo and Rémi run playfully through those fields, not yet preoccupied with labour.

By the end, Léo is stolidly following in the footsteps of his parents and older brother, having had to distance himself from the beauty that flowers all around him and within him.

Close is not a strident film. But its keen eye for the ways in which freedom turns to conformity and love to duty imparts a powerful political message nonetheless.

If it were easier for boys to remain close as they become men, embracing their vulnerability in the process, the world would be a much better place.

Screenshot courtesy of Madman Films. All rights reserved.