Film Review: “Close” — Feeling the Tragic Weight of the Human Condition

By Tim Jackson

Some might consider Close to be a depressing film, but its impressive understanding of human frailty and the power of forgiveness is revelatory.

Close, directed by Lukas Dhont. Opens tomorrow at Kendall Square Cinema.

A scene from Close.

Filmgoers today can escape into impossible worlds, triumph over unlikely odds, fall in love with unattainable beauty, go anywhere and see just about anything, all from the comfort of a theater set or a couch. But what does it make us feel? Empathy, from the German word “Einfühlung” means “in-feeling” or “feeling into.” In relation to aesthetics, it is our capacity to enter into a work of art, allowing oneself to experience emotions that the artist has sought to represent. High-speed chases or jumps into other dimensions, confrontations filled with explosions, roll-calls of bodies hacked, shot, or eviscerated make my pulse race and my eyeballs pop. But, aside from the expected primal shocks, what is there to feel? The five films I am referring to — Avatar: The Way of Water, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, Violent Night, Strange World, The Menu — do more than provide spectacle. Four of them spice up their plots with socially relevant issues. But their purpose is entertainment and profit, their emotional range superficial when not visceral. Are American audiences losing the desire to genuinely feel the tragic weight of the human condition?

Lukas Dhont’s film Close, had it been in general release in 2022, would have had my vote as the year’s best film. It is the 2023 Belgium Academy Award nominee for Best International Feature Film. This heartbreaking story of adolescent sorrow and reconciliation is rooted in a deeply empathic vision of its characters and their conflicts. That means viewers are asked to be active rather than passive — to emotionally invest themselves in the subtext of nearly every scene. Léo and Rémi, played by Eden Dambrine and Gustav de Waele, are soulmates, adolescent boys whose devotion is deep and easy going. They bike through back roads past fields of flowers, they playfully wrestle and spend sleepover nights together. A number of others in their school notice the pair’s strong bond and, were it not for the prejudice set up by traditional male roles, would see this as a loving friendship.

Two giggling girls ask:

“Are you two together?” Grinning Léo responds, “No,”

“Why are you laughing” she says.

“I don’t know. We just are”

“I was just curious, because you look very close as friends. That’s it. I’m not trying to be mean.”

” Well. We’re not.”

“Because it’s clear.”

“What’s clear?”

“That you’re a couple”

“Do we hold hands, do we smooch. No. You two do girly things together”

“When you sit together, You’re close.”

“Of course, we’re best friends, too. We’re BFFs to the point where we’re almost brothers.”

During this teasing provocation Rémi remains silent as Léo self-consciously defends the friendship. But a seed has been planted.

On the playground, Léo is comfortable with the roughhousing of his male peers but recognizes the sensitivity of his friend, who often sits quietly off to the side. Neither the boys, their schoolmates, nor the film overtly raises the issue of homosexuality. Small nuances suggest a multiplicity of conflicting emotions. At home, Léo attempts to play a note on Rémi’s oboe but can barely produce a squeak. He stares long and admiringly as he listens to his friend’s solo performance in concert, yet Léo makes it angrily clear he has become uncomfortable sharing his bunk bed. Irrevocably wounded, Rémi becomes increasingly sensitive to every slight. Their bond of unquestioned friendship has frayed; the results will be tragic.

The story keeps the issue of sexuality at a distance. Rémi locks himself in the bathroom following one of the boys’ scuffles, but his mother is not upset about the fight — she is worried that he has disobeyed her order never to lock a door. Her concern about what her son might do when he is upset suggests that Rémi has deeper emotional issues. We are left to speculate whether these are linked to a conflict over his sexual identity. When misfortune strikes, Léo’s loss, anger, and unresolved feelings become the dramatic focus. Because he is unable to express his emotions, Léo’s guilt deepens. His self-destructive response to trauma and guilt — complicated by a sense of betrayal and confusion — is anger and withdrawal.

To his credit, Dhont addresses these psychological issues visually, carefully avoiding unnecessary secondary conflicts. He establishes a compelling rhythm,  quiet scenes alternate with more combative confrontations. Moments of reflection give way to energetic ice hockey practices. Eden Dambrine, a remarkable young actor, carries the film, both on the ice and in scenes without dialogue, which call for the intimation of thoughts and feelings. The camera lingers on the boy’s face, his wide green eyes relaying depths of unstated longing and feelings. This is a challenging performance because it demands the display of so much vulnerability. Equally brilliant are the adult actors. Effective film acting often comes from the performers locating their emotions in a scene and then burying them: show, don’t tell. The viewer’s active, and compassionate, engagement is an essential ingredient in completing the experience.

There is no clutter in the elegant naturalism of Dhont’s screenplay. The camera is there to patiently study each actor’s face. We are given ample time to feel their inner struggles. The social context is supportive: we are given loving parents and teachers who understand students and students who do not pick on one another. Léo’s own brother is caring and helpful, holding him in his arms as the boy is falling apart. He and the rest of the family work hard at running their business — harvesting flowers, a metaphor for growth and rebirth. But this image is ironic: our desire for a resolution to the torment of adolescent angst is frustrated by a devastating final dénouement in which anger and fear collide. Some might consider Close to be a depressing film, but its impressive understanding of human frailty and the power of forgiveness is revelatory.

Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story. And two short films: Joan Walsh Anglund: Life in Story and Poem and The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts