Los Angeles Times

‘Close,’ but no cigar


mers, cueing many lovely shots of the boys running and riding their bicycles past colorful fields. (For better or worse, Dhont and his cinematogr­apher, Frank van den Eeden, seem incapable of composing an unlovely shot.) The camera speeds alongside the boys, keeping pace with them and, it seems, sharing in their joyous sense of abandon. But then it will come to a gentle standstill, tenderly observing as Rémi’s mother, Sophie (Émilie Dequenne), laughs and tumbles with the boys in the grass, or as the two boys share a bed in Rémi’s room, its suggestive­ly dark red walls enfolding them like a cocoon.

Is there an element of physical attraction at play here? Dhont doesn’t say, and his silence raises another question: Why does it matter? The best thing about “Close,” an Oscar nominee for internatio­nal feature and a major prizewinne­r at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, is its firm but gentle destigmati­zation of boyhood intimacy. Whether Léo and Rémi are going through an unusually intense phase of their friendship or experienci­ng the early adolescent stirrings of sexual desire — two equally plausible and hardly mutually exclusive possibilit­ies — their bond deserves time, space and understand­ing, not judgment.

Their families, to their credit, provide them with that understand­ing. As in “Girl,” his tense, troubling drama about a transgende­r ballet dancer, Dhont expresses a near-mystical belief in the decency and supportive­ness of parents. As a counterbal­ance, he also understand­s that children and teenagers are capable of remarkable cruelty, which is where Léo and Rémi’s troubles begin. There’s a telling overhead shot of the boys arriving for their first day of school and immediatel­y getting lost in the crowd; they’re no longer alone, and their bond will never be the same. Before long their casual tenderness draws unwelcome attention from their classmates, some of whom make giggling insinuatio­ns (“Are you together?”) and some of whom assault Léo with homophobic slurs.

While Rémi seems generally unfazed, these attacks have a profound effect on Léo, who bristles, panics and begins to pull away from his best friend — a process of rejection that Dambrine, whose sensitive pout and penetratin­g stare at times recall a young Jude Law, makes legible at every stage. He gives a remarkable performanc­e, as persuasive in its rough-and-tumble physicalit­y as in its delicately understate­d emotions. As

Léo withholds affection and attention from Rémi and eventually begins avoiding him altogether, Dambrine projects a complicate­d swirl of callousnes­s, vulnerabil­ity and regret. And as played by De Waele, Rémi, though less front and center, registers a heartrendi­ng incomprehe­nsion at Léo’s betrayal.

The two boys may love each other equally, but Rémi’s need is clearly far greater — perhaps because he has no siblings (unlike Léo, who has an older brother he’s also close to), and perhaps for other reasons that Dhont leaves unspoken. And he leaves a great deal unspoken here. “Close” is about a lot of things — the joy of friendship, the heartache of separation and the oppressive­ness of masculine stereotype­s — but what it’s mostly about is the nature of its characters’ silence. And that silence isn’t always a bad thing: In the movie’s radiant opening passages, Léo and Rémi have little need for words, so palpable is their contentmen­t in each other’s company.

But then in its second half, after the boys’ connection is sharply ruptured, the movie engages an infinitely tougher kind of silence: the fumbling inarticula­teness of boys who, even if they could make sense of their emotions, would be hard-pressed to know how to talk about them. The degree to which Léo is stifling his feelings becomes most apparent when he joins an ice hockey team — an athletic pursuit that serves as both a public assertion of convention­al masculinit­y and an opportunit­y to make new friends. But as the story keeps cutting away to shots of Léo darting across the rink, his movements lightning-swift and his face twisted in concentrat­ion, he seems more alone than ever — as if he were trying, through sheer physical force, to exorcise the most private and personal of demons.

For much of “Close,” Dhont’s restraint dovetails artfully with his characters’ repression, though as it progresses, the movie increasing­ly seems to make a fetish of its own subtlety. At roughly the midway point, Dhont unleashes a narrative developmen­t that, while believable enough on its own terms, feels more like an eva-*

sion than an exploratio­n of the story’s true emotional potential. That coyness persists through the second half, with a series of suspended conversati­ons and delayed reckonings that strain for honesty, only to bog down in the familiar language of arthouse mannerism.

Dhont, a filmmaker of considerab­le and undeniable talent, has a weakness for telegraphi­ng his own boundless sensitivit­y. He’s also still learning to braid his competing instincts toward realism and melodrama, as if he were both determined to go for the jugular and a bit embarrasse­d by his own determinat­ion. As good as his actors are — especially the wonderful Dequenne, whose Sophie quietly seeks to repair the boys’ broken bond — they cannot conceal the calculatio­n inherent in this story’s design. Nor can they quite overcome the disconnect between the glossy, self-admiring visual beauty of “Close” and the stormier, uglier emotional depths it purports to uncover.

 ?? A24 ?? EDEN DAMBRINE, from left, Émilie Dequenne and Gustav De Waele in “Close.”
A24 EDEN DAMBRINE, from left, Émilie Dequenne and Gustav De Waele in “Close.”

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