Belgium’s Lukas Dhont takes a deserved step up to the Cannes Film Festival competition with Close, only his second film — a minimalist melodrama that shows a definite growth in visual style but may be confronting to some with its deliberately unhurried, Eric Rohmer-esque aesthetic. The international success of Dhont’s well-intentioned debut Girl, about a young trans-female ballet dancer, was somewhat blunted in the U.S., where G.L.A.A.D. amplified complaints of misrepresentation on behalf of the trans lobby. Close is a much safer proposition, but may yet sail into choppy waters with its themes of youth suicide.
Most certainly mined from personal experience, it stars newcomer Eden Dambrine as Léo, a 13-year-old boy who lives in a rustic idyll with his best friend Rémi (Gustav De Waele). Léo’s family runs a flower farm, and flowers are a constant motif throughout, whether growing, blooming, being threshed, or picked and packaged up. The two boys run wild in this bucolic wonderland until the first day at a new school comes round. Leo and Remi’s closeness is immediately remarked upon, but although the pair are teased, their schoolmates never resort to bullying.
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Nevertheless, Léo is uncomfortable with the attention, and although Dhont’s film certainly can be read as a not-so-subtle allegory for the angst of being a young gay teenager (Dambrine is a spit for his director), Close is really a film about loss of innocence and the putting away of childish things. Léo begins to pull away from Remi, and after a play fight that will take on a lot of significance later, he joins an ice hockey team. The camera never strays far from Léo’s side, and after a significant amount of time away from Remi, most of it on a school trip to the seaside, he returns to find his mother waiting with the simple but devastating news that Remi “is no longer here”.
The drama that follows touches on Xavier Dolan territory with its emphasis on mothers and especially Remi’s mother Sophie, played with a shattering stillness by returning Cannes heroine Emilie Dequenne (Best Actress winner in 1999 for the Dardenne brothers’ Palme d’Or winner Rosetta).
In keeping with the film’s theme of a boy on the threshold, we never get to find out what happened to Remi — there are details scattered here and there — because the adults are being protective. Neither is there a why, but Léo becomes convinced that he is the reason: the Judas who betrayed his friend.
Dhont’s child’s-eye-view can be a little repetitive and isn’t especially groundbreaking; indeed, some of the film’s school scenes recall last year’s underrated Un Certain Regard title Playground by fellow Belgian Laura Wandel. Likewise the film’s constant internalizing of such an emotive issue might alienate those who prefer their grief served up Mediterranean-style, like Nanni Morett’s overcooked Cannes hit The Son’s Room (though the school encourages his classmates to open up about their loss, Léo refuses to join in with their superficial observations about a boy they hardly knew).
But the film’s slow pace will reward the patient in its closing stretches as we begin to realize that only Sophie can truly understand his loss—and vice versa. But can they ever communicate that bond? The resulting tension, expressed almost entirely physically in a very non-verbal film, sets things up for a highly emotional but cathartic climax.
One of the strongest films to premiere in this year’s Competition, Close has huge potential for awards across the board. Sad to say, it will need them; the Cannes laurels will only do so much work, because, for a film this intimate, only the Palme d’Or really counts. Is Close the little film that could? On the bright side, it just very well might be.
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