The new Belgian import Close is such a fragile, intimate little confession of a movie that you hesitate to describe or review it at all — or, certainly, to overpraise it. Better to let it wander on its own, like an unsupervised kid, maybe neglected and underseen but also free from the strait-jacket of explication and settled business.
So we have a spoiler problem — not just in the realm of What Happens but in terms of implication and interpretation. Virtually everything in director Lukas Dhont’s Oscar-nominated film — his second feature — is spoilable in the wake of chitchat; like Charlotte Wells’s Aftersun, it leaves vast amounts of things unsaid, encouraging us to speculate — foolishly? — about the film’s secrets. You think you can pull what’s submerged up to the surface, but in the end, the film refuses to tell you that you’re right.
Therefore, read on at the risk of diluting the film’s vodka wallop into tap water — particularly considering that it’s a film about 13-year-olds, the dystopian norms of middle school, and the heat-death stress of puberty’s onset. You’d think we’d need another one of those movies like we all need new holes in our heads, but the aptly-named Dhont doesn’t traffic in YA cliches and knows how to ignite a whirlwind of dawning-awareness anxiety with nothing more than a glance. It’s not complicated: Leo (Eden Dambrine) and Remi (Gustav De Waele) are inseparable buddies in their bucolic Belgian hamlet, doted on by their parents, and close, really close, spooning-during-nap-time close. Dhont dotes, too, shooting these two gorgeous kids in the summertime before secondary school with the same dazzled ardor French filmmakers so often lavish upon teenage girls. As they romp and play and loop skinny arms around each others’ necks, we assume these guileless, vulnerable, prepubertal boys are on their way to discovering their gayness, and therein to facing the social meat grinder once the school year begins.
Are we right to make that assumption? Or are we part of the problem? In no time at all, the other school kids go there too, provocatively asking them if they’re a couple. In that one moment, a switch is flipped and the world changes: We see fear enter Leo’s eyes for the first time, and we know he immediately understands the rules of engagement. It doesn’t matter if he and Remi are in fact gay — Leo knows that how they’re perceived by their peers is a crisis in the making, and we get a clear view of a timeless dynamic: the horrifying, tragic moment when the childhood impunity we thought defined our lives vanishes and innocence is obliterated. We’ve all endured it, whatever our sexuality, and I don’t know of another film that studies this universal injustice with as much precision and purity.
What happens thereafter, as Leo begins to dampen his bonded intimacy with Remi out of self-preservation and Remi doesn’t quite fathom why, is what we can’t talk about, but neither do we ever know for sure how much Remi does in fact understand, how much his mother (Émilie Dequenne, in a grippingly fraught performance) fathoms what the boys have at stake, and how much of the spiraling fallout is the result of presumptions, like the kind we work up with every lingering close-up of the bewildered characters.
Dhont, with deft help from cinematographer Frank van den Eeden and co-writer Angelo Tijssens, knows that expressing the barely articulable emotional temperature of the film’s people matters far more than labeling their beliefs or decisions. We come away knowing so little, but having our own youthful passage brought back to life like a nightmare we’d forgotten. Because it’s so sparse with customary exposition, there are a lot of different possible takeaways from Close, but the toughest might be the simple and brutal fact that, for most of us at least, at 13 we’re not done cooking — we’re an incomplete person, and that completion, when it comes, means having our best self destroyed and replaced with something duller, more fearful and less alive. It’s not fair, but the best we can do is survive it. ❖
Michael Atkinson has been writing for the Village Voice since 1994. His latest book is the new edition of his BFI tract on David Lynch’s Blue Velvet.
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