Review – Close

The following review contains mild spoilers for the film that addresses themes of suicide and self harm. Please be advised before reading this piece.

After just 2 films at the age of 31, Belgian filmmaker Lukas Dhont is cementing himself as a festival darling and Cannes’ new golden boy. His previous outing, Girl about a teenage transgender girl’s aspirations of becoming a ballerina won the Camera D’or for best debut feature as well as the Queer Palm at the prestigious festival amongst numerous accolades across the world. While that film was heavily praised, it was deeply criticised in equal measure by LGBTQI+ critics for not just having a cisgender male performer portray a trans girl, but also it’s depiction of gender dysphoria, self harm and for leaning into yet another narrative that extracts ’empathy and dramatic weight’ from the trauma of transgender people. 4 years on, Dhont returns with Close, a sombre coming-of-age story that has won numerous awards (including the Grand Jury Prize at Cannes and the Sydney Film Prize at the Sydney Film Festival) and has even garnered an Oscar nomination for Best International Feature, but it is hamstrung by Dhont’s frustratingly manipulative filmmaking tendencies that continue to plague his work.

What makes Close so much more frustrating is that the film starts off very strong. It follows the lives of Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele), two 13-year-old boys living in rural Belgium who are the most inseparable of friends. After spending an enchanting carefree summer of playing together in Leo’s parent’s flower farm, their relationship begins to change once they have to snap back to reality and start high school. Taken aback by the intimacy of their friendship, their classmates interrogate Léo and Rémi if they are a couple while others mock them. While Rémi seems unfazed by what was said, Léo vehemently denies this and it makes him uneasy and insecure about how the others students perceive him. As the school year goes on, Léo and Rémi slowly drift apart until their unbreakable bond is tragically broken.

Dhont excellently captures an innocence and tenderness of pre-teen male friendship and intimacy that is unfortunately rarely showcased on film. Dambrine and De Waele are terrific in this regard and make the very deep emotional connection in the central relationship feel so genuine and touching with their remarkable chemistry. The first act does a great job of establishing such a beautiful and affectionate friendship as well as planting the seeds for its inescapable breakdown. It’s an evocative experience that transports you right into the frame of mind of a child at that age. Even with so much change happening in your life at 13 both physically, mentally and socially, the breakdown of a friendship for seemingly innocuous and silly reasons is confusing and difficult to process. This is what Dhont executes best in the film especially in relation to Léo’s character. Rémi doesn’t change because of what the others think, but Léo’s fear of being ostracised for how close they are overcomes him and tries to over-compensate, either by hanging out with the boys making fun of him or engaging in stereotypically masculine behaviours such as taking up Ice Hockey and doing more hands-on work on his parent’s farm.

But here is where we get to the manipulative side of things. I understand penalising a film for being ‘manipulative’ sounds like a very moot and pointless criticism as filmmaking is essentially manipulation reconfigured as an artform. However when discussing this critically, it all comes down to execution, the audience’s awareness that are being manipulated and the way in which the filmmaker is manipulating you and their intentions behind it. In Girl, Dhont employs pure exploitation in the film’s climax with a very harrowing and graphic depiction of a transgender girl performing an act of self-inflicted genital mutilation that was horrifying and deeply irresponsible. Unfortunately, He learned the wrong lesson from his previous film which put the moment of pure shock value at the end of the film. Rather than doing the smart thing and omitting this sort of hackneyed provocation altogether from Close, he instead advances it to the 40-odd minute mark when Rémi out of nowhere takes his own life.

Thankfully, Dhont has shown the slightest iota of growth by choosing not to depict self-harm on screen this time around, but once the film plays that hand, it really has nothing left to offer. The compelling explorations into toxic masculinity, teenage insecurities and internalised homophobia are all diffused so that Close can spend the final hour of its runtime as trite and shallow grief porn, wallowing in the despair and hopelessness of the aftermath of the tragedy. And after you’ve sat in this vacuum of misery for a while and you see your 5th close-up of a single tear streaming down a cheek, it is hard not to notice the way Dhont is pulling the strings here. Everything that felt genuine and resonant in the opening now feels cheapened, as if it was all just a means to an end and Dhont had just taken the most extreme narrative shortcut in order to achieve nothing more than a visceral emotional response from the audience. THAT is manipulative, but it sadly seems to have worked given the film’s rapturous praise. Léo’s survivor’s guilt and the connection he has with Remi’s mother Sophie (Émilie Dequenne) after her son dies which is the driving force for the tension and drama in the final hour, but it all rings hollow by that point.

Ultimately, Close is a monumental disappointment. The first act is excellent, but the use of suicide as a plot device undoes all the great build-up and it quickly descends into an empty manipulative tear-jerker and a crass exercise in artistic sadism. Dhont is sure to make a good film one day, but right now he does not have the maturity or deftness as a filmmaker to handle any of this distressing subject matter with care. He would rather continue to make his audience wade through this cinematic swamp of sadness without a life jacket than present any meaningful rumination on grief.

If this review has impacted you, there is someone you can reach out to. Lifeline is a 24-hour support service and can be reached by phone on 13 11 14 or online at lifeline.org.au.

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