Wednesday 15 March 2023

A separation: "Close"

Close is The Banshees of Inisherin without the laughs, which means it's pure sadness all the way through. Co-writer/director Lukas Dhont, following up 2018's contentious trans drama Girl, introduces us to two 13-year-old boys - Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele) - who've grown up in the same Flemish backwater, become fast friends, and are now all but joined at the hip. There's barely a scene in the first half-hour where the two can't be seen together: running through chrysanthemum fields, sharing a bed after they're tired out, even breathing into each other's mouths by way of sleepover entertainment. Of course they share a desk at school, too - but, as Dhont means for us to register, big school is where the faultlines in this relationship begin to appear. It starts with gently probing, amused questioning from classmates, both fascinated and bemused by the intensity of Léo and Rémi's bond, while wondering whether these two might be, well, you know, different. There are also the usual peer pressures to negotiate. The sporty Léo falls under the spell of bigger boys with their roughhousing ways, graduating to the school ice hockey team; Rémi, quieter and more musical, gets left on the sidelines, clinging forlornly to a clarinet. It turns out that these boys aren't as inseparable as the movie first makes them out to be, and that former friends don't have to sever their fingers with garden shears or burn down one another's properties for situations like this to be deeply, deeply painful.

Which is not to say that Close is devoid of melodrama, but for the most part Dhont is trading in a sundappled variant of that observational realism that sustained his breakthrough feature, maintaining a tight focus on the boys' everyday activity. I suspect this filmmaker, as a young Belgian himself (he's 31 at time of writing), may well have been raised on a diet of those much-admired, oft award-winning Dardennes movies. (Exhibit A: he casts Émilie Dequenne, the brothers' unforgettable Rosetta, as Rémi's mother.) Yet Dhont brings a new delicacy, even poetry to his predecessors' intentionally stripped-back, prosaic cinema, attempting to finesse quiet observation into acutely sensitive art. Dhont is to the Dardennes what Andrea Arnold is to Ken Loach: what happens when social realism gets passed through art school. That much is clear from the considered application of Valentin Hadjadj's score, as florid as those fields, and from a scene where Léo looks on rapt as Rémi gives a clarinet recital. Here, the camera appears to be asking the same questions of the boys as those classmates, only without the sniggering. Maybe Léo and Rémi are gay. Maybe they're just preternaturally good friends - friends in the way we more traditionally expect of young girls. In a civilised world, what would it matter? Either way, we spend the second half-hour watching the boys drift apart, falling from shared laughter into awkward silences, cycling down diverging paths. Soon the pair are on opposite sides of the playground, seeing other people - and this is as comforting as Close gets. This minipop souring has reduced grown adults to floods of tears, and it's because Dhont finds within it echoes - painful echoes, a little wince - of every break-up you've ever had, every loss you've ever felt, every time you've blamed yourself for a relationship going awry.

Clearly, then, this evolution of realism is far more attuned to inner states than its arthouse predecessor. Léo and Rémi aren't representative figures trapped within an oppressive social system, as were Rosetta or Daniel Blake; as written and filmed, the tragedy here isn't strictly the fault of capitalism or Western society or the Belgian state, rather something we tend in real life to file away under the rubrique of "one of those things", desperately sad though that is. (This universality or abstraction is, I think, one of the reasons for the rapturous responses the film has prompted since its debut at Cannes last year - I'll circle back to this point in due course.) Where the Dardennes have typically alighted upon a scenario that illustrates an unjust element of the wider world, Dhont burrows in, and strives wherever possible to ascertain the psychology of such a situation. The approach yields at least one scene I hadn't seen before - a session of group therapy for eighth graders - and an outstanding performance from Dambrine in a role that demands a lot from one so young and inexperienced. In the course of the film, Léo has to pass through the following states: softboi playmate, enthusiastic jock-in-training, kid numbed by grief, and - upon the resumption of so-called normality - someone unsure when, where and how his residual anger and regret will come out. Dhont wisely coaxes that performance out in baby steps; this director's lingering, patient, ever-generous close-ups allow these characters to register what's unsaid by those around them, and the actors to react more fully to their scene partners. Dhontian realism is all in on fostering empathy, rather than sticking it straightforwardly to The Man. There is also, in this cinema, a Céline Sciamma-like affection for youth. The difference is that Dhont isn't quite operating on the same level yet.

Nothing in Close is as reckless as Girl's fatally flawed final act, but this filmmaker is still prone to occasional over-emphasis, points where he puts a foot down too hard on the accelerator to underline a meaning or elicit an effect; the delicacy is sustained erratically, and some of it seems overbearing. We could easily get what's going on within this story, and within these relationships, without the cutaway to unharvested flowers being churned up, or a shot of Léo struggling to keep his feet on the ice. Elsewhere, a certain decorousness holds sway: the longer it goes on, the more apparent it becomes that Close is a very much 12A-rated study in grief. This may be a reaction to the outrage Girl drew from certain observers: Dhont has tipped back in the opposite direction, trying to appease everyone. But there's a monotony about the film's sadness. Every other shot in the second half is one of those lingering close-ups, this time of damp cheeks, trying to set us off, too; there's none of the consoling humour that bounces around families in even their bleaker moments. I wonder whether, like the similarly overpromoted Aftersun, this is one of those films that has benefitted (at least critically) from the fact we haven't really been allowed to process the intense emotions of the past few years - that Léo and Remi's loss invites claim as a surrogate for our own losses. Coming along after decades of self-identifying enfants terribles, Dhont hereby establishes himself as the good boy of European cinema, following up a misjudged debut with a sophomore effort that never for a moment allows us to overlook the heart being worn so prominently on its sleeve. My only reservation is that, in reality, grief is rarely so good-looking, and hardly ever this well-behaved.

Close is now playing in selected cinemas.

No comments:

Post a Comment