A delicate double portrait that goes awry

This film about the disruption of an idyllic early teen male friendship with dire consequences - summertime bliss that goes awry when school begins - is exquisitely filmed and acted, but makes many uncomfortable, not only because it's disturbing but because it is manipulative, and feels wrong from the start. Anthony Lane in The New Yorker found it "as hard to sit through as a horror flick," "a vision of bliss" that "descends into a sorrow show." He compares its situation to "a china figurine placed near the lip of a shelf," where "all you can do is brace yourself for the smash."

Though the two young actors - Eden Dambrine as Léo and Gustav De Waele as Rémi - are fine, as well as Émilie Dequenne as Rémi's mother, despite the delicacy of the portrayal of innocent young male (13-year-old) closeness (too-closeness is more like it), it's hard for the sensitive viewer not to feel exploited from the earliest shots of the boys gamboling in the flower farm. Thirteen years old? Anything is possible, but I can remember when I was thirteen I could not have interacted with such innocent physical closeness as this with another boy. It also feels that these two boys ar a little too perfectly matched in size and physicality - the same sweet look, the same delicate limbs compared to ore dissimilar growth of typical kids at this age.

In his Los Angeles Times review Justin Chang brings skepticism to this film as I do, but he wants to make more allowances. He writes: "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."

Why does it matter? Simply because it just does - because gender roles and an appropriate sense of intimacy and sexuality are significant things from quite early on. The explanation is the two boys grow up to the age of thirteen when they enter the school in relative isolation. But how isolated can you be in a small European country? Here as elsewhere, Dhont shows the will to bend things as he likes and a skill at doing so that is impressive, but dubious. If the film weren't done very well it wouldn't matter.

Later in his review, Chang admits to having doubts, after all, about the whole enterprise. "As good as his actors are," he says, "— 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." And finally he notes "the disconnect between the glossy, self-admiring visual beauty of 'Close' and the stormier, uglier emotional depths it purports to uncover." In other words, it creeps up on you. It is not what it has seemed: and more than a few critics have noted that after a big tragic event midway, the film turns obviously much less subtle and more conventional.

Too bad. There is good material here. The situation of an innocent friendship spoiled by the social norms (and casual homophobia) imposed by school society is one worth scrutiny. But the whole thing has been put together more crudely than at first appears. (A.O. Scott spells out the movie's arc in his New York Times review.)

Close, 104 mins., debuted in competition at Cannes May 26, 2022 and shared the Grand Prix with Claire Denis' The Stars at Noon. French release Nov. 1, 2023, Us release Jan. 27, 2023. Metacritic rating: 81%.