Director: Lukas Dhont (Belgium, Netherlands, France). Year of Release: 2022
The screen is black but you hear the voices of young boys, pretending to be soldiers. They whisper at each other very loudly, saying that they must keep quiet. One announces that opposing soldiers are on their tail, and they must either shoot back against insurmountable odds or break out. As tension mounts, you strain to see the subtitles behind the tall man in front whose head just can’t stop bobbing from side to side. Maybe the last experience was just mine.
We soon get to meet Léo and Rémi. To help those of us who have difficulties telling characters apart, one is blond, the other dark haired. They’re both around 13, and they’re using the end of the Summer holidays to play soldiers, ride their bikes and run through the plants which are nearly as tall as they are. They stop over at each other’s houses, often sharing a bed, their arms draped around each other in a distinctly non-sexual way.
When they start at the Big school, Léo and Rémi are incredibly close, sharing a desk and putting their head on each others’ shoulder. Some of the girls ask if they are together. It seems to me that this question comes more from curiosity than malice, but when some of the macho boys ask a similar question, it feels more threatening. Léo is perplexed by the question. Do we hold hands?, he asks. Do we snog? Of course not. We’re just good mates.
Nonetheless gradually, almost imperceptibly, a distance starts to grow between the two boys. They get less, as you will, Close. This shift in their relationship is largely initiated by Léo. He is the more outgoing of the two, but also the one more concerned about public opinion. He takes up the more “manly” pursuit of ice hockey, ironically partly because it brings him closer to one of the other boys in class. He seems to relish continuously crashing into the barriers at the edge of the ice rink.
Whereas once Léo went to all the concerts featuring Rémi – an aspiring oboist – sitting in the front row to share his friend’s glory, he becomes visibly distressed when Rémi comes to watch him at ice hockey practise. They still sleep over, but when they get too close in the bed, Léo moves to the floor. He looks agitated when he wakes up with his friend on the floor next to him. The pair stop sitting next to each other in class, and even have a playground fight.
Things come to a head when the class take a day trip to the beach. For reasons that are at first unclear, Rémi is missing, although it comes shortly after his fight with Léo. When asked where his friend is, Léo has no idea. In a very short period of time, Léo and Rémi’s relationship has shifted from them being joined at the hip to having no idea what the other is doing, This separation has been caused not by any personal animosity but by implicit peer group pressure.
Tonight was the German premiere of Close, shown as part of the MonGay series of LGBT films. Although director Lukas Dhont is gay, it is far from clear whether any of the film’s characters are. Maybe both or one or neither of Léo and Rémi are gay. Maybe they aren’t. This is not particularly important as the main message of the film is not about the gay experience but on how all people – gay and straight – are encouraged to conform to the rules of heteronormative society.
I have read reviews which say that we should not even consider the possibility of Léo and Rémi being gay, as they are only 13, as if no-one that age has ever realised that they are gay. Equally, we should not assume that all early teenagers have a full understanding of their sexuality and presume that the boys’ actions either show that Léo is distancing themselves from their true selves, or that Rémi’s relative silence comes from a knowledge that he is an eternal outcast.
What is really happening in the film is more subtle than any of this. It is less important that Léo and Rémi are (or are not) gay, than their different responses to the implications of society thinking that they might be. As they reach adolescence, and issues of sexuality become important for the first time in their lives, they must come out with fully fledged responses. Is it any surprize that these responses are confused and inchoate?
One final point. I have said more than once that there is a type of film which does well at film festivals, is critically lauded but does nothing for me as absolutely nothing happens. These are films made for people who enjoy talking about film rather than those who like going to the cinema. Well, Close premiered at the Cannes Festival, where it was nominated for the Palme d`Or, and was loved by most critics who saw it. Also, it is a film where very little happens.
So, I’m going to hate this one, right? Well, wrong, actually, although I’m finding it hard to articulate why not. Yes we don’t see much more than a couple of kids riding their bikes, playing, in school, and looking intermittently happy and sad. And yet there is so much going under the surface that you excuse the lack of car chases. There is a lot to watch in young people and their parents coming to terms with oncoming adolescence without us being led by the nose about how we should react.
Both the actors playing the two boys and those playing their mothers give incredibly empathetic performances of people struggling to deal with times of emotional change. The whole film is a bravura ensemble performance. Maybe you need to go into the cinema with the right expectations, but as long as you realise that you’re about to watch a display of real emotions encountered by real people, it’s worth some of your time.