The Seasoned Ticket #210

Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.

Close opens today at the SIFF Cinema Uptown. It’s nominated in the Best International Feature Film category at the Oscars this year.

It might be that every year is rich in movies about children, and that the subject is so common in the cinema that one hardly notices it. But 2022 felt especially rich, maybe because I got to see more film-festival titles than usual—making movies about childhood is surely a mainstay for younger filmmakers whose work might not get beyond the festival circuit. For the record, I was impressed by Emmanuelle Nicot’s Dalva (grossly re-branded as Love According to Dalva), Joseph Amenta’s Soft, Claudia Sainte-Luce’s The Realm of God, as well as genre pictures such as Dan Trachtenberg’s Prey and Eskil Vogt’s The Innocents, and more high-profile films, such as Panah Panahi’s Hit the Road and the Oscar nominees Aftersun and The Quiet Girl. And there were more. 

Perhaps the abundance of childhood pictures explains how Lukas Dhont’s Close feels underappreciated. You may think you have seen this movie before, or you might assume it falls into a conventional frame of queer cinema. You haven’t, and it doesn’t. The early sun-dappled scenes depict the borderless friendship of two 13-year-old boys, Leo (Eden Dambrine) and Remi (Gustav De Waele), who live in a rural area and enjoy a prelapsarian freedom, constantly at each other’s sides and houses. It’s only when they begin school, where other kids conclude that their physical closeness must mean they’re gay, that this friendship becomes self-conscious.

Remi doesn’t appear bothered by the taunting from others, only by the fact that Leo is suddenly wary and less affectionate. Close is not about the tragedy of gay kids being bullied at school, but about the tragedy of self-confidence being shaken by the opinions of the outside world—Leo isn’t strong enough not to absorb the sneering, so he pushes Remi away and adopts the accepted styles of schoolyard machismo, including joining the school hockey team (Dhont lingers endlessly on Leo’s hockey practices and games, turning the padding and the helmet into literalized armor atop all that was sensitive in this boy).

Dhont’s style seems to be a deliberate continuation of (or an elaborate homage to) his Belgian compatriots the Dardenne brothers—including the casting, in an important supporting role, of Émilie Dequenne, star of the Dardennes’ Rosetta, which won the Palme d’Or and Best Actress prizes at Cannes in 1999. There are times when this intimate, handheld style feels a little generic, a go-to mode for Euro-cinema these days. But what elevates Close is the almost casual way the worm of doubt can be installed in a previously happy existence—an observation devastatingly brought to life—and the power of the actors, especially Dambrine, who gives one of the performances of the year.


February 10, 2023

Robert Horton is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.

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