Belgian film-maker Lukas Dhont found praise and then a backlash of criticism in 2018 for his debut feature, Girl, the story of a young transgender woman auditioning for ballet school, which some found to be inauthentic, and an unwarranted fetishisation of a trans person’s body. It could well be that he will get more criticism for this new film on the grounds that the unselfconscious love and friendship between two 13-year-old boys is being catastrophised and problematised.
I admit there are times when Dhont goes straight for the deafening minor chords of anguish. But there are two excellent performances from newcomers Gustav De Waele and Eden Dambrine as Rémi and Léo, and also valuable appearances from the actors playing their mothers: Sophie (Émilie Dequenne – iconic for the lead in the Dardennes’ 1999 Palme winner Rosetta, when she was hardly older than the boys are now) and Nathalie (Léa Drucker). Rémi and Léo are inseparable, hanging out and playing together all the time: physical, tactile, joyful and innocent, but certainly far more intense than most 13-year-old friends. Léo is especially close to Rémi’s mum and is physically at ease with her. He particularly admires Rémi’s musical talent – he plays the oboe. Schoolmates suddenly become aware of the intensity of their friendship. Girls – who are perhaps honest, or perhaps malicious, or just somewhere between the two – ask Léo if he and Rémi are a couple. With malign, ersatz sophistication, they ask if Léo even “realises” it.
Soon the boys are starting to make mean remarks to Léo, who is angry, scared and humiliated. He withdraws from Rémi, blanks him in the playground, goes in for macho ice hockey. Rémi is deeply baffled and wounded; Léo can hardly bear Rémi’s mute and then not-mute reproach, and with being confronted with his own fickle dishonesty.
The story of Close is disturbing because, however wised-up teenagers probably are now about the language of relationships and LGBT issues, compared to the relative naivety of maybe 10 years ago, the breakup of an intense friendship is shocking. There is still none of the adult life experience to explain it away, and the end of a friendship is devastating in the way a romantic relationship isn’t. For Rémi, Léo’s sudden decision to break up with him has the same effect as his mother deciding to put him up for adoption, or the sun not coming up in the morning. It is a violent, unspeakably painful rupture that Rémi does not have the language to explain to himself. He is perhaps mature in ways that Léo is not. Perhaps he is outraged at what amounts to a disloyal capitulation to homophobia, or perhaps it is not a question of being mature: he is just upset, or more than upset. There’s no doubting the force of this drenchingly sad story.