To the pantheon of films about the pains of leaving childhood behind – The 400 Blows, The Spirit of the Beehive, Rocks, The Go-Between, Boyhood et al – we should find a spot for this beautiful elegy of lost innocence from Belgian director Lukas Dhont (Girl). It’s a story of friendship and loss: a quiet tornado of overwhelming emotions that articulates perfectly what it is to be young and adrift.
The ‘close’ of the title refers to the vice-like bond between two 13-year-old boys: Léo (Emilie Dequenne) and Rémi (Léa Drucker). They’re thick-as-thieves: frolicking through Rémi’s flower-farming parents’ fields of peonies, role-playing as medieval knights, and sharing a bed most nights. They cat-nap on each other’s shoulders, play fight and hang out. In the ultimate gesture of loyalty, Rémi even watches Léo haltingly practise his oboe. Léo wants to travel the world. Rémi, you know, will want to go with him.
But it’s the other meaning of ‘close’ – the one synonymous with shutting down – that this emotionally intuitive film wants you to consider when the pair return to school and peer pressure kicks in. ‘Are you together?’ a fellow student asks. ‘You seem very close as friends.’ It’s teasing with a homophobic edge, but there’s no real malice in it. Close doesn’t demonise the boys’ classmates – there’s no bully here – but Dhont subtly shows how those throwaway insinuations impose an irresistible pressure on the pair. Léo soon withdraws from his friend, taking up ice hockey, joining in the football chat and bailing on their shared bike ride to school without warning.
This beautiful elegy of lost innocence belongs in the pantheon of films about childhood
It’s shattering to witness the play-fights morph into a real one, and tears replace joy, and Dhont lets you know that tragedy lies ahead. Working with the sparsest dialogue, his two young actors make you believe every painful, inexpressible feeling.
For Dhont, it’s a step up from his debut transgender drama Girl, which provoked controversy for its depiction of gender dysphoria and its cis casting of a trans role. Close critiques societal norms from a different angle, delicately tracing the emotionally deadening but invisible frameworks of conformity that are imposed on young people in their most formative years. It’s a quiet tragedy that’s rendered close to uplifting by its gentle grace and compassion.
In NY theaters Jan 20, 2023.