Belgium’s Lukas Dhont entry to the 2023 Oscars is content with the easy route

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Writer/director Lukas Dhont brought dramatic weight to his feature film debut in 2018 with Daughter. It resonated with some audiences, but the negative politics surrounding its portrayal of gender dysphoria with a transgender track lingered. In Dhont’s second feature, close discusses the evolution of friendships between young men and the social constructs that define physical and spiritual closeness.

‘Close’ focuses on friendship between teenagers and men

LR: Gustav De Waele as Rémi and Eden Dabrine as Léo | A24

Two 13-year-old boys named Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele) have a friendship as deep as family. They spend all their free time with each other, so the news that they are enrolled in the same class at school delights them. However, Leo and Remi’s physical affection disturbs the other children in their class, as they come to believe that they are gay and in a relationship. In response, their peers unleash preteen cruelty on them.

The seemingly unbreakable friendship begins to disintegrate to avoid further ridicule. Léo and Rémi’s loss of friendship ultimately has disastrous consequences that affect their forever bond, questioning their understanding of socially acceptable notions of masculinity and affection. As a result, Léo and Rémi’s relationship takes on a new form.

The loss of innocence and a conversation shrouded in intimacy

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The screenplay by Dhont and Angelo Tijssens demonstrates the unbridled imagination of youth in the playful friendship of Léo and Rémi. They spend their summer days running through scenic fields, enjoying sleepovers, and implementing the aforementioned imagination in their games. close talks about the hopes and dreams teenagers have for the future. Rémi plays the flute with the unfailing support of Léo, who imagines a life in which he acts as a manager for his friend’s musical career.

Léo and Rémi’s childhood wonder comes to an abrupt end on their first day of school. A person’s preteen years are some of their most transformative, and Dhont’s sophomore effort is no exception. Both boys begin to be ridiculed for their physical affection, which they perceive as natural until their peers tell them otherwise. Homophobia is learned, not inherent, which plants a seed of insecurity in Leo that keeps growing. He struggles with his notion of masculinity in different ways than Remi, creating a crack in their friendship that continues to turn into a spider’s web.

close tells of a loss of innocence that can never be recovered. Leo’s sudden change in demeanor extends to his previously exuberant nature, abandoning his imaginative perspective in his time spent with Remi. Words have immense power, as the judgments they contain put their friendship on the path to annihilation. Dhont takes the viewer back to familiar settings, but they don’t retain the beauty they once had. Dhont and Tijssens’ screenplay has a deeply poignant take on the demise of adolescence and innocence.

‘Close’ aims to tug hard on the heartstrings

'Close' Eden Dambrine as Léo and Émilie Dequenne as Sophie seated next to each other.  Dabrine has a serious look on her face, while Dequenne has a sweet smile on her face.
LR: Eden Dambrine as Léo and Émilie Dequenne as Sophie | A24

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close embraces a delicate warmth thanks to the magnificent work of cinematographer Frank van den Eeden. Its colors are vivid, especially in bright yellows and reds. The framing makes effective use of close-ups, establishing a proximity not only between Léo and Rémi, but also in relation to the public. This is also reflected in composer Valentin Hadjadj’s melancholic score and Dhont’s use of silence which quickly becomes deafening.

There’s a certain breathless nature to close. The motif plays through Rémi’s use of a wind instrument and Leo’s method of helping his friend fall asleep with soothing words and gently blowing air on him. Before alarming revelations bubble to the surface, Dhont’s film constructs a world as delicate and light as air.

Léo de Dambrine and Rémi de De Waele contribute to the aerial character of the film. They bring authenticity to both the friendship of their characters and the earth-shattering discoveries they make along the way. Unfortunately, Dhont settles for the obvious. He handles the film’s dark subject matter as a plot device, which ultimately negates the film’s impact. Although not exploitatively handled, the second half of this narrative loses much of what made its antecedent so compelling.

Dhont asks the question of what it means to be close and how this intimacy is affected by the difficulties of life. His examination of these issues combined with how adolescent masculinity plays out in male friendship is engaging, but he puts them on the back burner in exchange for emotional blows that feel undeserved. close is emotionally accurate and thematically compelling at first, but it loses much of its sincerity as it engages in a heartbreaking manipulative twist.

close hits theaters January 13.

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