Close is a gut punch of a film. Best to make that clear right off the bat. Later, we’ll get to the way that adjectives like “tender,” “quiet,” and “intimate” capture its warm-hearted sensibility. But for now, there’s no escaping that Lukas Dhont’s French-language childhood fable, which took home the Grand Prix at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and earned an Oscar nomination for Best International Feature Film, left this critic in a near-catatonic state when its credits rolled.
Oftentimes when discussing childhood, we mistake an unguarded sense of openness and possibility for innocence, one that gets tarnished and weathered with time. But that disregards the way that growing beyond childish delights can be violent or even ruinous. This is especially true for kids whose embrace of imagination when it comes to themselves and those around them can crash into the limiting labels and ready-made boxes society has on offer. Close enters that discussion by offering a heartbreaking tale of a beautiful friendship between two boys that sours from the outside in.
Léo and Rémi (Eden Dambrine and Gustav De Waele) spend most of their time in their own world. Their days are spent outdoors playing make-believe games where the two stand alone against an encroaching enemy army. Their nights, in contrast, are spent in quiet introspection with Léo tenderly helping Rémi silence his anxious thoughts with fables about ducklings. The pair are inseparable, finding in one another not just a “BFF” but someone, as Léo explains it at one point, who’s almost like a brother.
Yet such brotherly love—especially in the physical closeness that Léo and Rémi exhibit—finds no place when they’re at school. Snickers from girls in their class and venomous comments from boys create a rift between them. And as Léo begins to pull away, Rémi finds himself adrift. This bond he’d long nurtured is suddenly embarrassing, eventually making their interactions fraught with minefields that neither boy cares to acknowledge. Dhont allows us to spend enough time with them both to see how fragile their friendship becomes before he unsettles us with an unspeakable tragedy.
With those two words, the entire film turns. The delicate intimacy of late-night conversations and daytime games gets gnashed from within. Dhont is careful to only offer us the briefest of hints of what happened. Yet with visual and storytelling efficacy—Dhont is carefully attuned to how much a throwaway line about Rémi’s inability to lock the door to his family’s shared bathroom suddenly shifts when the door is later seen smashed in—the film makes clear that what’s taken place is everything a mother would fear.
And so, what begins as a careful study of a budding bond becomes a meditation on grief. Léo, whom the camera follows with welcome ease, tries to go on about his life with the knowledge that it’ll never be the same. You witness him, almost in real time, mourn both what was and what could’ve been.
True to its title, Close relishes working at the level of the close-up. Dhont’s gaze lingers on Dambrine’s wide-eyed expressions, at first allowing us to see the love Léo has for Rémi, and later to capture the vexing feelings that overcome him whether in school-mandated grief counseling sessions, rugged hockey practices, or concerts where it’s clear his mind is searching for a way to make sense of all he’s experiencing. Early in the film, his roving eyes landed lovingly on Rémi, as if he’d found a port where he can anchor his entire world. Later, he searches around for ways to ground the immeasurable guilt and loss he feels. What Dambrine does with so many wordless gestures and dialogue-free scenes is nothing short of extraordinary, especially for the way he captures a depth of feeling that’s grounded in what we’d otherwise deem as indifference or passivity.
One of the gifts of Close is the way it refuses any tidy didacticism. The thorny questions it poses around shame and grief can’t be neatly summarized nor are they easily explained away. Dhont pushes his audience into increasingly uncomfortable situations, at dinner tables and in car rides, that defy us to learn any lessons at all from what happened to Rémi. Moreover, it doesn’t present grief as following any kind of foreseeable path; adults and kids alike grapple with grief in such varied ways that you understand Dhont’s desire to steer clear of maudlin melodrama which would narrativize such feelings, giving them a logical endpoint.
Carefully tracking Léo’s loss and the weight of responsibility for what happened, Close presents us with a character who keeps needing to find ways to better express his emotions and who searches, in others and in himself, for such healthy outlets. It’s what makes its impactful final shot so weighted with meaning; he may never find what he’s looking for if he only looks back. He’ll constantly be called to look ahead and beyond, knowing such a gaze will forever be rooted in a longing for what’s been left behind. Close is exquisite, tender, and bruising in equal measure, managing to feel both like an open wound and a balm.
(Close opens in New York and Los Angeles on January 27.)