We’re just very close, she says. This ambiguity invites a flurry of questions. Do you have feelings for him, a friend might ask? Are they platonic, romantic, sexual, or something else? Has anything happened? Describing the relationship as merely “close”—a word that suggests repression—will not do. The problem is that this conversation will very possibly alter her relationship with her friend: now she might see him differently, question their relationship, and behave more self-consciously around him.
Close, Lukas Dhont’s second feature film, carries a vexed title that problematizes these tricky performative effects language can have. Léo and Rémi, its charismatic adolescent protagonists, have a deep and obvious bond—the kind that, over coffee on a Sunday morning, might make for pleasant people-watching. In the film’s opening scenes, they play a game of pretend, fantasize about their futures, look lovingly at each other, fall asleep side by side. Having fun for them is spontaneous and uncomplicated, and their energy and instincts for movement—running through flower fields and riding their bikes—are perfectly synchronized. They spend day and night together. Their summer hangs like smoke in the air, oblivious to the passage of time.
Shots of them together are languid and intimate. Léo and Rémi are sensitive, and Léo—whose gaze viewers are meant to follow—is emotionally precocious. He has an easy and free relationship with his words, and it is second nature for him to verbalize his feelings and his dreams. When Rémi reveals that he has difficulty falling asleep—his thoughts outrun him—Léo improvises a charmed story featuring ducklings, a lizard, and a trampoline to quiet Rémi’s mind. Their friendship is at once innocent and wise, combining the childlike facility for suspending disbelief with a profound mutual understanding. Recalling the title of the film when I finished it was comparable to becoming self-aware of the banal clichés I spout in the face of sublime natural landscapes. Their relationship beautifully throws into relief the feebleness of language, a reminder that words like “close” can only point towards a container of an experience that sits beyond the reach of words.
But the seeming boundlessness of summer is, of course, an illusion, and when they return to school, their schoolmates pry. Some are just curious, if prurient; others are bullies. If newly conscious of how they are being perceived, they remain inseparable. Through class introductions, they glance at each other, wordlessly forming and communicating judgments on their classmates. In the middle of class, Léo rests his head on Rémi’s shoulder. Tenderly, with a smile, Léo asks Rémi if he’s nervous.
But the circumstances of their friendship have undeniably changed, and to mark this shift, their arrival at the schoolyard is shot from a bird’s-eye view, resembling CCTV surveillance footage. Aware of this scrutiny, Léo and Rémi stay close together while scanning the groups of people who surround them, feigning an ease anyone who has arrived at a party of strangers can recognize as false. Soon, Léo makes new friends and leans into new hobbies, like playing hockey. Rémi changes less, remaining steadfastly attached to Léo. Wary of homophobic suspicions about his sexual identity, Léo distances himself from Rémi through muted but unmistakable signs of rejection.
In a superbly choreographed and acted scene of the movie, teasing and playful physical aggression morphs into anger and spite as the two boys tumble over mattresses and wrestle with one another. The conflict arises because Léo relegates Rémi, probably for the first time, to sleeping in his own bed. Both in this scene and more generally, their closeness is imploding, the intensity of their connection becoming a source of acute hurt and pain. Their capacity for doing violence to one another is a new feature of their relationship they have discovered, and it is disconcerting and distressing to them both.
Through all of this, it is only natural to wonder whether there is indeed something more to their relationship than friendship—even as we might suspect that this crude kind of inquiry is what Dhont hopes we can move past. Inasmuch as Léo and Rémi share something extraordinary, the answer is clearly yes. But this answer might still feel insufficient if we insist on knowing more explicitly and categorically whether their relationship qualifies as queer desire and love. Dhont, and his protagonists, are silent on the topic. If something consequential has taken place between Léo and Rémi, it is a private affair. Without making viewers feel as if a grave secret has been occluded from the film—which would open a can of worms from an ethical standpoint—Dhont provides viewers with the sense that we know all that we need to know, a knowledge that is as incomplete and interpretively open as it is for Léo and Rémi. The important point, he suggests, is that we ought to reject our jejune partiality for certitudes, rough-hewn categories, and leading questions. To be granted the privilege to observe the soft gestures, sideways glances, and aimless conversations that transpire between two people is more access than we are owed. And to smother such intimacy with labels—which we, like their peers, might be apt to do—is a bad habit we are encouraged against by Dhont’s directorial style.
A tragic event permanently severs Léo and Rémi’s relationship. It is abrupt and devastating, and it’s hard not to begrudge Dhont for enacting a needless cruelty to drive home a message with a more didactic tone. At the critical turning point in the film, his plot choice is jolting, and his heavy-handedness is in sharp contrast with the subtlety and complexity of his characters. In its aftermath, he continues to excel most in his poetic portraits of embodiment, expression, and touch. What appears to be a mother’s suffocating embrace proves to provide her son with catharsis; a shaken boy lays against his older brother for companionship; a wounded adult and child release their tense and defensive postures to forgive one another. Dhont retains his skepticism of the assumption that producing a proliferation of language about feelings might somehow lead to the truth. In one scene, Léo is coaxed to share some reflections with a group, and he flatly refuses. In some cases, reticence is both most honest and right.
Dhont understands the singular possibility for film to capture the ineffable qualities of friendship that exist most vividly in the present tense and which have long dissipated when all we have left are narratives, adjectives, or hardened impressions of bitterness or distance. In Close, he is studious of the ever-delicate changes in a relationship that take hold when we look at each other, touch each other, and pay attention to each other differently. And perhaps in childhood, he proposes, we know best how to be with people we love—a knowledge that slips through our fingers like sand the more we subject it to the adult strictures of language.