Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Remi (Gustav De Waele) are best friends. At 13, they are intelligent and autonomous enough to be allowed a certain freedom, but still full of the childish and spontaneous joy of being and imagining. They pretend villains are attacking the castle, run through the flower fields, and have so many sleepovers together that Léo‘s mum wonders aloud if he’ll ever come home.
Remi’s mum Nathalie (Léa Drucker) isn’t complaining. She sees Léo as her other son as he fits in with the family – a brother of sorts to Remi. They talk together with that particular quasi-adult maturity: sometimes flights of fantasy and other times asking how the other slept. They meet on their bikes on their way to school. But school is the place where you learn to look at yourself through other’s eyes, other prejudices. It’s where we first become painfully aware that non-conformity is being a weirdo; we learn that we’re ugly, or fat, or smelly, or that we have a speech impediment or that our sexuality is something to be mocked, attacked and ridiculed.
Léo has always been the one who is more openly affectionate but on being quizzed by the girls in the class about his relationship with Remi, he reacts in fear of further mockery. He befriends another boy, with whom he soon starts to play ice hockey, and starts to shun Remi. Where they had once both been mutually supportive – Léo tells the clarinet playing Remi that he’ll be famous – now Léo is embarrassed by the closeness that he once treasured. Thus it is we throw away our treasure to conform to the fickle opinion of idiots.
Remi is stung and hurt. He has already shown subtle signs of an underlying melancholy – his mum asks him not to lock the bathroom door – so when he doesn’t show up for a school trip, it feels as though something bad might have happened. This is the moment slips into another gear and turns towards the tragic. What remains is about the loss of innocence in the cruelest and most abrupt manner. Léo might continue to look like any other child: he continues with his ice hockey, works in the flower fields for his parents and resolutely refuses to talk about his friend. But something is not right and the tighter a grip Léo keeps on his feelings, the more damage he is storing up.
Lukas Dhont first broke through with his debut film, 2019’s transgender drama Girl. Like that film, Close sticks intimately close to its young participants. Cinematographer Frank van den Eeden fills his frame with their faces. We see every twitch of their emotions even as they try to work out what it is exactly that they are feeling. The seasons change and the world turns. “Life goes on until it doesn’t,” is to say comedy and tragedy can exist in the same frame. Some may flinch at the extremes of tragedy which the film turns to. Is it cheap sentimentality? A hackneyed plot device to make a situation into more of a story? But it is worth noting that such tragedy happens and happens disproportionately to young boys. Dhont’s second film is a touching and empathetic treatment of male friendship, superbly acted and beautifully filmed.
The 75th Cannes Film Festival takes place from 17-28 May. Follow our coverage here.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty