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CLOSE 1.jpg

Review: Toxic Masculinity For Tweens Too 'Close' For Comfort

By Jason Adams | Film | January 25, 2023 |

By Jason Adams | Film | January 25, 2023 |


CLOSE 1.jpg

Do you remember the moment when you came of age? It’s such an odd phrase, implying a suddenness very few of us outside of trauma survivors experience, as if a switch was flipped and the scales fell straight from our eyes—we smacked our lips around the fruit of knowledge and found ourselves exiled from innocence, immediate wanderers unto the thorny landscapes of adulthood. I imagine for most of us it’s rather a procession of instances, of random moments with no recognizable shape in the moment but which form us all the same. I picture a smattered pathway, leaping over patchy grass, to somewhere as of yet and perhaps forever unknown.

And so the “coming of age” story remains a standard, perhaps because of its mutability in its specifics but universality in outline. The lesson need not be the same, just the change that it manifests—the newfound glints of wisdom in the eyes of the subject at the far side of it. So thank goodness for newcomers Eden Dambrine and Gustav De Waele, who play best friends Léo and Rémi in Lukas Dhont’s small traumatic wonder of a film Close (nominated out of Belgium for a Best International Feature Oscar this week and finally hitting theaters here in the U.S. after premiering at Cannes last spring)—their eyes, or Dhont’s camera trained on those eyes anyway, reveal a sea of shifting sands swallowing whole the world.

Close, gorgeous and devastatingly sad, is a tender whisper of brutality, a razor precise excavation of a year of innocence lost. As Léo and Rémi race across fields of dahlia flowers—they clearly never took to heart Shug Avery’s advice that it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple and don’t notice it—the warm haze of nostalgia’s backward glance tells us all we need to know, looking in. Simplicity stands upon a pin’s fine tip, and even the gentlest summer breeze can send us tumbling—we have come here as witness to Edenic fall. Again. Let the terrible ritual of seasons commence.

Léo and Rémi are effortlessly entwined when the film begins—not just physically, limbs entangled, but their imaginations perfectly in sync, whether it’s pretend battles in dusty forts or secret smiles they share over unspoken things. Dhont proves magnificent at plunking us down into this idyllic intimacy by training his lens on the boy’s wordless communications, the ones they don’t even recognize. Shoulder rubs, sudden bursts of laughter. It’s an unarticulated language of two, and we’re allowed entry so swift and succinctly it’s a marvel on par with the opening sequence of Pixar’s Up.

Of course, as with poor Carl and Ellie there, reality must come crashing in and mucking it all up. And for Léo and Rémi it’s their return to school after that perfect amber-hued summer that takes on the destroyer’s form this go-round. The boys, clinging to each other across the playground and science class like two halves of a single organism, have their cell split in two by prying eyes and invasive questions —their closeness suddenly suspect, suddenly not the “norm.” And we all know what a yawning abyss “abnormal” represents to any 13-year-old, perhaps by the pangs of remembering our own bruising experiences. So who then can blame Léo when he starts pulling away?

Dhont captures this rift like the peeling of a band-aid—slow at first, then with a horrific yank. It’s as confusing to Léo and Rémi as it is predestined by the stars, by the scars we all still carry from that time ourselves. Masculinity, performative and isolating, demands outward thrust—kicking balls and shoulder punches. Hugs and tears and nighttime talks between two spoons is sissy stuff that must be stomped down and buried six feet deep. Men shoot first and ask questions later, if ever, probably more like never, and it’s been like that since time began. Or so the story goes.

What’s so marvelous about Dhont’s retelling is the precision of it—all distraction cut away, his camera trained mainly on Dambrine’s enormous eyes in particular, we understand everything in gesture, in pause, in conversations about anything but about what’s being articulated. Characters run through the dark, they shudder in the rain, they watch flowers grow old and die and become mulch for future generations. And if that ain’t the all of it then I don’t know what.