French writer and director Christophe Honoré’s Close to Leo (2002) is a poignant ode to family bonds, love and acceptance. The often grey film (both visually and emotionally) stars Pierre Mignard as a young French man who discovers he is HIV positive, and the ensuing drama as he and his family come to terms with what his illness means to each of them. 21-year-old Leo (Mignard) is the eldest in a family of four boys living in coastal Brittany. When he reveals to his parents and older brothers that he is HIV positive, the resulting emotional effects leave lasting marks upon the close-knit family.
By the very nature of its subject, Close to Leo was never going to be a feel-good movie. Had the same story been done by Hollywood, it would likely have been given a sentimental finish, in order to make what is still an unapproachable subject in many people’s eyes, more acceptable. However, the makers of this film should be applauded for facing up to the effects this debilitating disease can have on not only the sufferer but also those close to them.
At its heart, Close to Leo tells two stories: how Leo’s parents and two middle brothers deal with the knowledge that their son and sibling is a) gay and b) an HIV sufferer, and Leo’s relationship with his youngest brother Marcel (Yaniss Lespert). That the family try to protect Marcel from the the news of his brother’s illness, proves in the end to do both them and him an injustice. When Marcel discovers what is going on, his knowledge and acceptance not only drives a wedge between him and his family (particularly his stiflingly protective mother played by Marie Bunel), but also shows he has a maturity beyond what his elders – including Leo – give him credit for.
Beautifully shot in a pale palette of greys and blues, rural Brittany provides an effectively sombre background against which Close to Leo plays out. The last five minutes are as sad as the preceding eighty five, and Marcel’s continued exclusion by his well-meaning – if misguided – family, may well play as a metaphor for much of the general public’s continued fears and misconceptions surrounding this 21st century blight.