Close Demands to be Seen, Not Defined
Categorizing this post as a Film Thought means I’ll be examining Close in some detail. There will be spoilers within. As I’ve mentioned on this blog, I am gay. In this piece I will discuss what I feel is the universality of this film, that is not to detract from the significance a film like this can have on the community but it is intended to talk up the broad impact it can have if people are willing to watch it withou pigeonholing it.
To discuss Close is to have to discuss how to label it. Labeling films invariably causes issues. In an ideal world it shouldn’t be necessary, but it’s human nature to do so. This film itself deals with the issues of labeling and definitions on a subtextual level. The innate human need to define things that don’t conform is the inflection point of the story.
Another way Close might be labeled is as a coming-of-age film. Coming of age films— particularly dramas, perhaps more than any other subgenre of film—are easy prey for the proclivities of a given viewer. To put it more simply, because it’s about a coming-of-age and every person has had a unique experience with life’s rites of passage, there exist biases in each viewer about what kind of film it should or should not be. These biases could be implicit or explicit but they exist; and their presence affect the individual’s perception of a film.
The more I think about labels one might apply to this film the more problematic it becomes. Because all labels will serve to do is limit the opinion —or potential opinion—people have of this film because while all labels define, many are also limiting.
To tag this film with an “LGBT interest” label (or something similar) comes close to belittling it because that’s an identifier, which more often than not that limits the audience it denotes to many “this film might be excellent but it’s for you, not for all.” The LGBT tag is limiting because Close addresses themes within aren’t only about sexuality; they’re broader and more fundamental than that. Any and all labels are limiting to this film and all should see it.
As the title implies, Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele) are close. When this closeness is on display around their classmates it gets them talking, making jokes, and asking bluntly if they’re together. Everyone labels Léo and Rémi. Léo’s response to direct examination about the nature of their friendship underscores the double-standard that exists regarding how boys can and should relate each other and how girls can and should relate to each other.
These are the assumed gender roles that pervade society incite the questions come from a classmate who doesn’t ask these things to be cruel, but Léo pushing back on these questions, against these labels doesn’t force any of their peers to reconsider what they say, or change how they act around Léo and Rémi, if anything it reinforces it and forces both Léo and Rémi to re-examine their relationship instead. It puts their new reality in sharp focus. As opposed to their unobserved summertime idyll, they are now under the harsh spotlight of their peers. They can either cling more tightly to one another, damn the consequences, or adapt and hope to survive. Miscommunication, distancing, deceit, and self-doubt that all play into the eventual ends the characters meet are a direct result of the fact that they feel they have to cope with these confusing emotions alone and can’t find someone to talk to about it.
We learn in retrospect that Rémi didn’t give his mother (Émile Duquenne) any indication he was having troubles. We are witness to Léo’s struggle with how to deal with this new reality. On a few occasions, when Léo does seek a word of advice he asks his brother but he gets responses that encourage him to not think about the problem at hand. His reaching out to male role models inidcates his need, the need many male characters in this story have to talk to each other about certain things, but they find they’re unwilling or unable to do so. Eventually, Léo does reach out to women in his life, his mother and Rémi’s mother, but that’s only with great difficulty and added complications. The women in his life might be more receptive to listen or engage, especially those at school, but he doesn’t want to answer when prompted because many times confession or sharing confidence isn’t just about the act of sharing but whom the information is being shared with.
If you watch the trailer of Close there’s a lot of imagery of the idyll and pull-quotes and not as much of the struggle. However, you know a portrait of beautiful and close-knit friendship without conflict isn’t a movie. The conflict occurs for the most part beneath the surface and manifests itself in two physical confrontations: one that starts as roughhousing and escalates between the two boys (and is expertly staged and breaks apart almost like a dance but it’s very naturalistic), the second is more fraught and occurs at school.
And after this is where some people lose the film and don’t realize that nothing about the story fundamentally changes. There is a school field trip. Although, Léo and Rémi aren’t on speaking terms after the fight, Léo is surprised that Rémi doesn’t respond when his name is called on the roll. Léo looks around for him. When the trip is over and the bus is pulling into school again the children are told their parents are at the school and will meet with them. As soon as I heard this first bit of information my first thought was “Rémi’s dead.” While I wasn’t wrong, the revelation is still exceedingly powerful and doesn’t detract from the overall effect of the film. In fact, it might only redouble it. For even in those beautiful pure early moments, I wondered if Lukas Dhont was making a visual allusion to Bergman’s hauntingly evocative red walls in Cries and Whispers (pictured below) but picking up on a potential allusion is not needed to anticipate this turn in the story. Anticipation of that plot-point is not a detriment because the fact that the death occurs is not the point of the film, rather what occurs afterwards is.
It can be easy to view any off-screen suicide or not as a twist, or as manipulative, however that opinion to me is one more commonly shared by someone who’s life hasn’t been shaped or affected in any way by suicides or the threat of them. Unfortunately, this is a very real threat that rears its head far too often. (Pre)teen suicide is not the narrative crutch 9/11 can be, nor is it something almost without impact due to overexposure on the news like school shootings seem to be. These tragedies aren’t nameless or faceless. Aside from that this film is not about vilification, shock value or introspection. It’s a tale of imperfect self-discovery that has as its midpoint and all-too-common occurrence. By looking that harsh reality in the face, this film becomes something more than a lyrical narrative with hypnotic visuals and instead becomes a tour-de-force by visually examining everything that’s hard for these boys to say to each other and to the families and what the consequences of those silences are. Specifically, speaking about the pressures and issues at school, not that they need to be “picking labels” or understanding what their truth is yet. In point of fact, the “certainty” Rémi and Léo’s classmates—who don’t think their thoughts and don’t inhabit their bodies—seem to have about confused kids are undoubtedly stressors.
Léo’s struggles before and after Remi’s death make this a film as much about toxic masculinity as sexuality. Léo takes up hockey during the film not only as a hobby, but to have something to do separate from Rémi, to have a something to do with the guys, a “typically” masculine activity. After he’s tried an failed to express his guilt, or any of his emotions—to his brother, to his mother, to Rémi’s mother—he tries to injure himself during a drill. Later on, when he’s trying to partake in another drill but his emotions get the better of him and he can’t do the drill physically he ends up hurting himself. With that escape gone, he’s left with nought but his thoughts and emotions he cannot go on without sharing them eventuall, but it’s not done easily.
While many will have spent much of the second half of the film crying, the restraint of the narrative remains, though it might not feel that way because the audience’s emotional tenor for us has been ratcheted up, as we can sense what Léo needs to get off his chest but can’t say. In lieu of his speaking his truth we watch him twist in the wind. The emotional volatility Léo carries within can be summed up in one sentence. When he does confess it doesn’t come forth in bombast when confessed. Maybe if Léo felt he could behave otherwise it would’ve been full-throated. Maybe if he didn’t have to sit through group counseling sessions at school where he repeatedly heard the wistful confessionals of classmates who didn’t know Rémi, speaking of his passing as if it was nothing that could’ve predicted, then when he finally spoke it wouldn’t have been in anger before he stormed out but instead have been able to express his true feelings as he would’ve liked. However, therein lies the rub: When Léo and Rémi behaved naturally around each other that led to too much gossip.
To put a capstone on the topic of labels: they’re tricky because some labels carry connotations that aren’t universal. Those who refer to this as a “buddy movie” up to a point at least acknowledge how the boys classified their relationship. However, the conversation the girls have with Léo underscores the converse problem to intolerance; which is a sort of performative acceptance which first insists on the other party labeling themselves and then the mainstream force makes a show of “accepting” them.
Many reactions to Close from viewers seem to state things like “it’s so close to being perfect.” However, that goes back to personal biases. It’s more apropos to say that many viewers are so close to truly getting it. This film is not a fairytale. The beginning of the film is close, but what it really is is just the end of their childhood where they could behave as they pleased, no one cared, and they didn’t have to justify why they were so close.
Close is the best way to label Léo and Rémi’s relationship. However, even that is seen as an abnormality in a world where there exceeding examples to be found on social media of normal human behavior some boys and men think of as gay, examples that are superficially funny until you examine the real insecurities and concerns that lead to such statements. What’s most important to note in a work like this is that whether Léo and Rémi shared something beyond a deep fraternity is not something they were allowed to discover on their own. They were asked questions, those who posed questions demanded answers, the answers were deemed insufficient, and their subsequent behavior was more scrutinized than the behavior that led to those questions. Léo and Rémi losing the natural state of their relationships is a sin and it’s one that repeats itself in varying degrees daily the world over. Being a boy (or labeled as one) means certain modes of comportment are expected unless you want to be labeled gay. Working to avoid labels robs us all of so many fundamental, universal aspects of our humanity. It is this exploration that makes Close such a vital and important work of cinema.
Close is available to purchase on digital now and will be available to rent 3/28/23.