Lukas Dhont’s debut film Girl, inspired by the life of a trans female dancer, earned both praise and derision in equal measure for its depiction of transgender youth. Regardless of what you might have made of the film, it’s clear that the challenges faced by LGBT youth remain at the top of Dhont’s mind in his sophomore film Close. And for Close, these challenges take on a more personal meaning for Dhont, who himself was bullied at school for being gay.
The film begins with Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Remi (Gustav De Waele) as close friends, the pair thirteen years old and seemingly inseparable. They play, they laugh, and are close to each other’s families – Remi’s mother even jokes that Léo is the better son of the two. One day when the two are at school, they are asked if they are a couple. They deny, but the question lingers in Léo’s mind and is inescapable amidst hearing homophobic slurs from his classmates. He grows distant from Remi, which leads to something disastrous.
At their age, Léo and Remi should not have to decide whether or not they are romantically interested. When their classmates introduce themselves at the start of a class, one classmate says they love eating while another is obsessed with hockey. Play and hobbies are where Léo and Remi’s focus should be, not their sexuality. Nonetheless, the two are forced to consider the context of their friendship. Here, Dhont shows something that isn’t too obvious. Popular media and culture emphasize the challenges of coming out to one’s family and peers, but don’t illustrate the challenges there are for those who don’t – or can’t – come out. Regardless of whether or not Léo and Remi are romantically interested in each other, not knowing is not an option. And if their friendship becomes romantic, they are forced to come out in a knowingly harsh, homophobic environment, while if they don’t come out, they might be inclined to hide their relationship from their peers and not be able to be seen together romantically.
Léo decides to become distant from Remi, which to him is the easiest thing to do, despite the hurt he inflicts on Remi who doesn’t understand why Léo has become cold with him. Close depicts a loss of innocence as Léo bows to peer pressure. But how could we blame him? It’s extraordinarily difficult to see at that age that he shouldn’t be bothered by his classmates’ pressing question when school makes up all you know at that age.
With Girl and now Close, we can see that Dhont has a clear talent in working with young actors. Dambrine’s performance as Léo is tremendous, providing great depth to his role to the point where we forget we’re watching characters and not real-life people. He looks truly hurt when making the hard decision to become distant from Remi.
But this is also where, for me, Dhont comes to a fault as a director. He has a stoicism behind the camera that struggles to maintain the film’s momentum in the second half when the impact of Léo’s actions has already taken place. With Dhont, it’s hard to see a level of self-assuredness or authorship in his work apart from commonalities in subject matter. Close is filmed in an exceptionally naturalistic manner, almost like a documentary, and I think we’re yet to see what Dhont is capable of behind the camera.
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