Lukas Dhont caused a bit of a stir when he was last in Cannes with Girl in the Un Certain Regard competition. Focussing on a teenage boy desperately unhappy in his own body and resorting to self-mutilation, the film and its director caught quite a bit of flak. This year, Dhont is in the main competition with Close, another story revolving around young teenage boys and likely to cause a bit of stir itself.
The film opens with scenes of bucolic loveliness as two 13-year-old boys, Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele) play and frolic in the Belgian countryside, hiding out in old farm buildings as they create elaborate imaginary battles and racing through the fields of flowers grown by Léo’s parents. Their games and their intimacy – whether sharing a bed, lolling on top of one another, or laying a head on a shoulder – are about to come to an end as that idyllic summer is over and the start of a new school and new academic year beckon.
The boys’ new classmates are quick to remark on the physical intimacy and they are either teased cruelly by the boys (‘Faggots!’) or asked curiously about their relationship by the girls. Léo finds the questioning of his sexuality horrifying and is soon pulling away from his friend, even taking up that most aggressive of sports – ice hockey – to assert a bit of masculinity. For Rémi, this distancing is viewed as an unbearable act of betrayal and will have tragic consequences.
Dhont has drawn remarkable performances from the two leads, both making their debut in this film, De Waele capturing the fragility and intelligence of his character. But it is really Dambrine’s film, his wide luminous eyes so full of emotion they are sometimes hard to look at. The two boys are joined by a great supporting cast, particularly Émilie Dequenne as Rémi’s mother Sophie and Léa Drucker as Léo’s mum Nathalie, although as Rémi’s dad, Kevin Janssens has a scene-stealing moment that will be difficult to forget. Léo’s brother Charlie (Igor van Dessel) is a sympathetic character who becomes more important later in the film.
As well as recounting a tale of friendship and the loss of innocence so wonderfully, Close also perfectly captures school life: the cliques, the hierarchies, the easy friendships and the bullying. When Léo and Rémi start to navigate the school yard without each other, these elements are all on view.
Dhont pulls on the heartstrings through his musical choices (the score is by Valentin Hadjadj), which may seem heavy-handed to some, but music is used throughout the film as part of the boys’ story. We watch as Rémy practises on the oboe and then follow his performance at a recital, his friend in awe of his talent. And there is another concert later in the film, again attended by Léo and by Sophie.
The day before seeing Close, two reviewers were bemoaning the lack of a film like Michael Haneke’s Amour, which won the Palme d’Or in 2012. Well, thanks to Dhont, those reviewers now have that film. It is as devastating and full of love as Amour. It is beautifully crafted and visually impressive. Eden Dambrine is a serious new talent who is utterly watchable and carries the film from its joyous start to its emotionally devastating end.