Dhont’s first film, Girl, told the story of a young trans woman who yearned to have gender-reassignment operation while training to be a ballerina. Its depiction of adolescent awkwardness was so astute, though, that anyone could recognise its heroine’s discomfort, trans or not. Likewise, Close is superficially about the fear of being thought of as gay, but it’s more generally about what we all to have suffer when we grow up: coping silently with pain, inflicting that pain on others, warping our characters to suit the crowd, and realising that all types of instinctive intimacy now have to be labelled. Léo can still put his arm around his brother, because fraternal love is easy for society to categorise and accept. But to lie with his head on the chest of another boy who happens to be his best friend? That’s a privilege he has to leave behind.
Léo and Rémy’s gradual separation is agonising to watch (in a good way), but the plot leaps elsewhere at the halfway point, when the boys are rocked by a sudden horrific tragedy. It’s a slight shame that Dhont felt the need to make this shift. His microscopic examination of childhood’s withering is unspeakably poignant on its own; the subsequent lurch to more sensational anguish seems coarse and obvious in comparison. But even in the film’s heightened second half, Dhont prefers quiet observations to more conventional outpourings of emotion. He and his co-writer, Angelo Tijssens, haven’t put in any subplots or characters who aren’t central to Léo and Rémi’s situation, and they don’t extend any scenes beyond the time it takes for them to convey the key information. The script is so economical, and the acting so beautifully natural (especially by Dambrine, a remarkable discovery), that Close feels less like a drama than a tapestry of fragments from a candid documentary.
The films that premiered in the main competition strand at Cannes have been unusually divisive this year. Every one of them has been loved by some critics and loathed (or at least dismissed) by others. But there were rumours all along that audiences might agree on Close, and when it was shown, towards the end of the Festival, the sniffles and sobs bore out those rumours. Some people may have reservations about some of Dhont’s choices, as I do, but it’s hard to imagine anyone seeing Close without being rocked by his tremendous empathy and vision. At the age of 31, he is already an exceptional filmmaker, and this is an exceptional film.
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