Leo (Eden Dambrine) and Remi (Gustav De Waele) are more than just friends and not at all lovers. At only 13 years of age, they’re too young for that – and what’s more, their bond transcends simple labels. First seen running through the lush meadows of rural Belgium, the duo share a complicity that is as natural and abundant as the late summer harvest. Nothing that pure could ever hope to last.
“Close,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on Thursday, sees Belgium filmmaker Lukas Dhont (whose previous film, “Girl,” took home the Camera d’Or for best first feature in 2018) make his competition debut at age 31. A relative whippersnapper in this year’s (and most years without Xavier Dolan) Palme d’Or campaign, the rising Belgian filmmaker more than holds his own. If his film’s relatively modest scope and elementally simple structure could keep the festival’s highest honor just out of reach, it will probably not go home empty-handed.
Enjoying a kind of prelapsarian amity in each other’s homes, neighbors Remi and Leo have a life-defining friendship. Passionate about one another, equally interested in the other’s pursuits, they share an easy (emotional) intimacy, and are unafraid to show (chaste) affection. Think of a Belgian Tom and Huck and you wouldn’t be far off. What changes, of course, and what comes between this elemental friendship, is the rest of the world. Returning to school after a carefree summer, the boys can’t quite respond to a new classmate’s simple (and, it’s worth noting, seemingly non-judgmental) question, “Are you together?”
Well, are they? It’s tough to say. Their bond is not yet romantic, and maybe never will be. Instead they share something equally disconcerting to social norms: an intense and all consuming friendship all too common among adolescent girls and just as rare among boys. Not that the parents mind one bit, as both mothers (played by Léa Drucker and Emilie Dequenne, both phenomenal) seem grateful that their sons have found such an edifying bond.
But even in a world of love, the rot of social expectation can take its toll. Once voiced, such words can never be unheard. Things change, slowly and then all at once, as Leo pulls away, pushes back and looks to integrate himself within the larger peer group. Remi responds with hurt, both internal and external towards his erstwhile best friend, and then severs their bond in a definitive way.
Running at 100 minutes overall, “Close” is essentially split in two, with its first half following the boys together and its second tracking them apart. Both integrate the pair within a wider world of family and friends who might have witnessed the friendship but could never hope to understand its full emotional heft. How could they, when the two created an island all of their own? And like a castaway tale, the process of reintegrating into the wider world takes time and doesn’t come easy.
Dhont tracks it with the elegant (if hardly new) symbolism of the changing of the seasons. Carefree summer gives way to the fall harvest, which soon leads to a winter of shared discontent. But he is a generous and patient director of his unknown and more established performers, giving all moments to shine.
For all that, “Close” remains Leo’s story above all else, and with his film debut, the young Dambrine gives a fine, extremely interior performance. There is a physical component as well, especially as the boy pursues more athletic activities in his project to man-up, turning the film as a close and all-encompassing coming-of-age tale.