Perhaps the most famous quote about the cinema is that from critic Roger Ebert, who referred to cinema as the "empathy machine". It's the kind of statement that instantly makes the hairs on your arms stand up, in that it captures the indefinable about why we love this art form so much. It allows us, for a set run time, to step into the lives of others and see the world through their eyes, engaging multiple senses and connecting with whatever experiences we bring with us. As a result though, some of the works generated by that machine can push that empathy to the extreme, and take us to places we don't usually want to go. When I think about 'Close', the acclaimed second feature from Belgian filmmaker Lukas Dhont ('Girl'), this is the kind of experience that comes to mind. It's a potent example of how the many elements that make up cinematic storytelling can bring us to a state of extreme devastation, even with the gentlest of hands.
Note: this review speaks about themes relating to suicide and mental health. Please keep this in mind before you continue reading.
13-year-old boys Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele) have been best friends for as long as they can remember. They have a close and easy intimacy with one another, spend all their time together, are even thought of as members of each others' families. When they start high school, they're excited to be sharing this experience together, but the other boys begin to criticise them for their closeness. As a result, Léo begins to pull away from Rémi, his embarrassment and shame turning into small acts of dismissal and cruelty that devastate Rémi. And then one day, Rémi doesn't come to school, and Léo learns that his best friend has taken his own life, shattering his entire world.
I'm going to take a slightly different tact with this review than the usual. Questions over its technical merit are pretty much moot at this point, especially after its Oscar, Palme d'Or and BAFTA nominations - it's a superbly and carefully crafted film with extraordinary performances at its centre. The film itself though raises a number of questions, particularly about the handling of sensitive and upsetting themes within narrative storytelling. To make it clear, these are questions I don't have answers for, and ones I have been mulling over as a critic, audience member and artist for years, but they are questions worth highlighting in the first place, namely the responsibility a storyteller has to their subject, their collaborators and their audience.
I was lucky enough to see 'Close' at the Brisbane International Film Festival in November 2022. It was one of those films you pick when you're filling out your schedule after going for all the big name titles. The synopsis sounded interesting, I love a good coming-of-age story and a friend who had seen it at the Melbourne International Film Festival recommended it. Part of me wishes I had known more about the film before seeing it so as to prepare myself, because the impact it had on me was swift and extreme. Even though my thoughts on the film have evolved since that screening, it's important to recall what that initial gut reaction was. It was my heart reacting before my head began to rationalise that response, and there are always clues hidden there. When the devastating turn occurred and Rémi's suicide is revealed, I was completely taken aback, and as the film moved meticulously through the catastrophic aftermath and its psychological impact on Léo, I felt myself falling deeper and deeper into despair. By the end, no one in the cinema could move. When they did, it was a slow file out in silence. When I was finally able to get out of my seat, I fled to the bathrooms, sat in a cubicle and sobbed. It was a similar reaction I'd had only days before to Charlotte Wells' miraculous 'Aftersun', but that overwhelming state had been almost exquisite in its sadness. This was like being slammed into a cliff. The last time a film had made me feel like that had been Thomas Vinterberg's 'The Hunt' (2012), another film I wasn't prepared for and took a long time to process.
My immediate conclusion, as a result, was that this was a remarkable piece of cinema, and in many respects I still hold to this. The experience of being the one left behind after someone close to you has taken their own life is one almost impossible to describe. You assume it will be complete devastation, but what I remember most from my own such experience was a never-ending state of confusion - at the space they had left in the world, at whether I could have done anything, at the fact the world was continuing and that I was expected to continue as if nothing had happened, at how on earth I was supposed to go on after this. There are also the unexpected things, the strange objects and spaces that person leaves behind, spaces that were once full of their life, now dead and cold in a way that feels deeply disturbing. And this goes on for so, so long. You're left in a limbo, using what little emotional energy you have to try and anchor yourself somewhere. At its finest moments, 'Close' captures these strange and surreal aspects of this experience with startling, alarming clarity, to the point where I found it almost impossible to watch. And now add to this the fact that these experiences aren't being processed by an adult, but a child, one for whom this experience is not only unexpected but unfathomable. My whole body was in a state of emotional shock.
I must acknowledge that my initial reaction to 'Close' was obviously a very personal one, and not one that every audience member is likely to have. In fact, identifying this myself through the response of others has been useful in understanding the problem this film presents. It has obviously made an enormous impact, proven by its many accolades, but the general consensus has been split. On one end are reactions like mine, praising the film as a major, deeply affecting work, but on the other has been intense criticism of its approach to its subject matter. The phrase I've seen the most is the suggestion of "emotional manipulation", and while I initially didn't think much of this criticism, it has over time made me reassess my feelings about 'Close'. This may account for why I'm now writing this review three months after seeing it.
It is important for art (in this case, cinema) to be able to tackle these kinds of difficult, confronting issues. As much as we go to the movies to be entertained, the basis of performance has always been its contribution to helping us process our own existence, whether that be political, historical, social or personal. Shattering an audience has a purpose, and can be done in the most subtle of ways (such as 'Aftersun') or as direct and overwhelming as Spielberg's masterpiece 'Schindler's List' (1993). In most cases though, there is an intellectual purpose underpinning the work, aided by an objective, thoughtful eye. Ari Aster's 'Midsommar' is a gigantic depiction of grief and trauma, but he is always anchoring it in questions of human behaviour, response and consequence. Taking it even further, and favouring the feeling of devastation over an intellectual anchoring, the work can move from sadness and devastation into one anchored in misery, arguably a more palpable yet less useful emotion. It is this latter form that 'Close' perhaps sits closer to - a work of art built for no other purpose than to make you feel absolutely awful.
Suicide is a subject cinema has tackled many times before, but there is something singular here in the fact that Rémi and Léo are both 13 years old, and as Dhont depicts them, young 13-year-olds. A child that young should not, at the very least, have any concept of suicide as an option, but the truth is that children even younger, in circumstances far worse than Rémi's, have seen it as their only option. The death of a child in any circumstance is harrowing, but the death of a child purposefully by their own hands is almost cataclysmic. You are going to get a reaction from your audience when this is the kind of story you want to tell, so you had better have a good reason to ask them to sit there and watch, with the likelihood that you will confront them with something deeply upsetting and difficult to shake off.
It's this question of reason that an artist dealing with difficult material must return to - why am I telling this story? What does it offer? How will the audience benefit from this? The meticulous nature of Dhont and co-screenwriter Angelo Tjssens' storytelling, and the fact that the tragic inciting incident happens so early in the film, means we will sit in this state of misery for most of its run time, with almost no moments of respite. As well as watching a 13-year-old boy process the suicide of his best friend, we have to also watch Rémy's parents process it, and then deal with Léo expressing his guilt over Rémy's actions. Even just one of these narrative circumstances would be enough, but here they are all packed into under two hours, causing a compounding effect that risks the film toppling in on itself.
It's this question of reason that an artist dealing with difficult material must return to - why am I telling this story? What does it offer? How will the audience benefit from this?
So we come again to the question - why? Dhont has said in interviews that he began conceiving the film as having a queer character at the centre (already a red flag, with how often queer lives in storytelling have been linked to misery in the past), but that his thinking shifted when reading Niobe Way's book 'Deep Secrets: Boys' Friendships and the Crisis of Connection'. Way's book, drawn from hundreds of interviews, looks at how societal expectations of masculinity affect the ability of young boys to learn and understand friendship and intimacy, and the consequences on their sense of identity, sexuality and masculinity. Dhont said to the Los Angeles Times in November 2022 that, as a consequence, the film is "not about their sexuality, it's about how their intimacy and their sensuality are looked upon and how we are conditioned to look at it. How we want to compartmentalise everyone into boxes and labels and how we want to put a stamp on that love, and not let that love just exist in its true free form."
This comment, while in keeping with many ideas of the film, does not account for the extreme manner in which Dhont chooses to explore this concern. Another recent acclaimed work that plays with this risk is Hanya Yanagihara's monumental 2015 novel 'A Little Life', a chronicle of a character suffering through some of the worst levels of emotional, physical and sexual abuse you can possibly imagine. It's a book that is as reviled as it is beloved, because it also pushes its readers to the absolute edge (and arguably, over the edge) of what they can take in order to make its point. The risk with pushing an audience to the extreme of what they can take is that, when the work is over, all they will be taking away from it is that feeling of being pushed. There must be a balance, and while 'A Little Life' just gets there in the end (being as critical of its central character as it is sympathetic), I would have to say that, in reflection, I'm not sure 'Close' finds that balance effectively enough.
The point Dhont is trying to make, about the expectations we put on the behaviours of young boys to be "men", is made abundantly clear before Rémi's death. One scene, where Rémi's devastation over Léo's ambivalence towards him breaks open at the dinner table, is already heartbreaking and confronting enough. All that his suicide offers is an extreme example of those consequences, and then over an hour of (as brutal as this may be) wallowing in those consequences through the eyes of a shattered 13-year-old. Léo's guilt is so all-encompassing that, in the film's climax, Dhont presents us with an image that is so deeply primal and harrowing that you almost have no choice but to submit to the despair of it. And to what end? What we have, after this extended episode of tremendous misery, is the same thematic idea we got in the first 20 minutes. Dhont, the primary storyteller here, has dragged us through emotional hell and, it could be strongly argued, offers us nothing in return.
This brings us then to artist responsibility, something I've been pulled up on in my own work. If your reason for causing misery to your audience isn't clear enough and justified, then how responsible have you been for your safety? This is the question Spielberg grapples with in 'The Fabelmans', that art can have an irrevocable impact on those witnessing it, and how this sense of responsibility has guided him as an artist. By asking his audience to suffer through the trauma of Rémi's death and its aftermath, for reasons that feel unsound, you wonder what kind of reaction Dhont did want from us, and if that response is purely to feel awful, then I'm not sure that can be classified as being a responsible artist. I'm not arguing that 'Close' is an example of "reaction for the sake of reaction"; I'm willing to give Dhont the benefit of the doubt that his intentions here are well-meaning. What I can't stop coming back to is what the purpose was for going to the extremes he does. Make us feel intensely, sure, but offer us something at the end, otherwise I begin to question what our function in this conversation is to begin with. Why is it important that we sit here and watch, other than to feel completely shattered?
As I said earlier, I cannot entirely dismiss my initial response to 'Close'. On the day, I wrote, "I was not at all prepared for that, for the way it slowly grips your heart until the pain becomes almost unbearable, the delicacy and beauty with which it shatters you to pieces. Moments were so devastatingly familiar, I could hardly hold it together. I just cried and cried and cried." There's no question that it has haunted me, particularly the extraordinary performance from Eden Dambrine as Léo, but the wonderful thing about art is the conversations that come from it, and 'Close' has been a great reminder that film criticism is, more so than an indication of quality, about the act of engaging in critical conversation over a work of art. Reading responses from other critics and audiences has helped me reframe and perhaps even rethink my initial response. Doing this properly would really require me to revisit the film, but a large part of me doesn't know if I could put myself through the experience of watching it again, and maybe that is the most telling part. I will happily watch 'Aftersun' again, a film that caused me to have a similar reaction. Hell, I'd probably watch 'The Hunt' again. Yet as impressed as I was by 'Close', the experience of watching it was not an enjoyable one, and maybe this reflection has made me come to understand that experience, and the fundamental problem at the heart of this accomplished yet difficult work - I don't know why the film wanted me to feel that way in the first place.
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