Last night, I took a car downtown to watch Lukas Dhont’s new film Close in the cellar theater at the Roxy. I don’t know that I was in a good frame of mind to be in public—lately, I’ve been feeling the familiar thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to, meaning that I’ve had this ongoing deep, existential ache all over my body. It’s a strange sensation, difficult to describe, but it is a kind of spiritual alienation that turns into a quivering nervousness. Like stumbling upon a friend in conversation with another friend and realizing you’ve been left out, that clench-release fast brightness of betrayal. It’s like that feeling, but directed toward all of mankind, as though the world has gone on laughing in another room without me.
These moments come and go in my life, exacerbated at times by heart sickness or infatuation, lust or envy. Often, in the last couple of weeks, I’ve thought myself recovered only to find out that I’m not better, that I’m still in the throws of it. I can’t even walk around the city for relief because I feel so blue that just standing up hurts. Anyway, I say all of that to say that I’m not sure I was in the right frame of mind to be out among my fellow people, but I wanted to see the movie very badly. So I invited a friend so that I would not feel quite so lonely when the lights went down and when they came up again. Sometimes I don’t go to screenings because I always leave feeling lonely because I don’t know anyone and I feel keenly out of place. But I want to go to more things, but I don’t know who to invite because I hate imposing on people, or having to explain my tendency toward melancholy and how it’s fine but sometimes it’ not fine but also sometimes it’s totally desirable. But I invited a friend and he said yes and that was a relief and went to see the movie.
Close is a beautiful film whose brutality comes in its most tender moments. It centers on Leo and Remi, two young teens in that first awkward phase of adolescence. We find them at first in a dark structure where they breathe hard and wield sticks like swords against invisible enemies. It’s the sort of game that belongs to much younger children, and there is something sweet in it, watching these two boys play in this way that they will one day very soon have to leave behind in order to grow up. In the last days of summer, they run together and ride bikes together. They sleep in the same bed and tumble into and out of each other’s family homes. One night, Remi cannot sleep because he is anxious and so Leo tells him a comforting story to calm him down.
Things get complicated in the way they always do when the boys leave the bubble of their summer and return to school, where their closeness comes under the scrutiny of others. A group of girls ask the boys if they are together, and Leo brushes the question off, seemingly confused by it. But it starts a chain of events at once subtle and devastating.
I won’t give it away. The film deserves to be seen. You should go watch it. Dhont is a remarkably patient and rigorous filmmaker. His restraint is what makes everything feel so true and invested with real human feeling. The characters don’t feel like characters. They feel like people. It is the kind of filmmaking I love the most because it takes the viewer on an inward journey, the same inward journey that the characters must take. Dhont is with his characters every step of the way as they try and fail, try and fail, to find some relief from the bind they’ve gotten themselves into.
I haven’t cried in a movie in a long time, but I found myself in tears several times throughout Close. I kept thinking again and again, It’s not fair, it’s not fair. It reminded me of this time that my rapist said something horrible to me. And I went home very upset, and my dad hugged me. We were not a family of hugging. But my dad hugged me and I said it wasn’t fair, it wasn’t fair. And my dad said that it wasn’t, but life wasn’t about what’s fair. I was struck by that in watching Close. That the thing that happened wasn’t fair. But it was life. And there is no remedy for it except to go on living.
Close did not offer sentimental comforts to the audience or the characters. Instead, we watched as a community tried to cope with something horrible. And we watched as a young man tried to figure out how he was to go on in life. There’s a couple of moments when Leo climbs into his older brother’s bed to be close to him. It reminded me of when I was upset as a child and I would climb into my brother’s bed and get very close to him. Sometimes, he’d be annoyed and would roll away. Or he’d turn from me. I always thought my brother didn’t like me very much. But as I watched Leo and his brother, I realized that my brother never sent me back to my own bed. He might have pinched me or tickled me even though he knew I hated being tickled. He might have farted on me or put me in a head lock and made me smell his arm pits. But he never sent me back to my own room. He never made me leave. He was a teenager by the time I was seven, and probably wanted his own space. He probably wanted his own room and his own bed and all of that. But he never sent me away.
Eventually he did move out, my brother. And I got his room. And I was like Yeah, finally, I’m the big kid now. But I missed him very much. Not that we were close. Or shared intimacies. Not that he knew how to be tender to me in the way I needed. But when he was gone and it was just me in the house with my parents, I felt so lonely without him.
We don’t talk anymore. I find it difficult to talk to him.
There were so many moments in Close that felt beautifully observed. But also, running through the film was an elegant treatment of class and language in Belgium. It was interesting to note the contexts in which Dutch was spoken and when French was spoken. The element of class also was subtly and deftly handled. It all comes together in this very wonderful way. It reminds me of Chekhov or Ibsen in the sense that you have the feeling that you are finding the characters in the midst of their history and that it will continue after you stop watching. That feels so rare these days. Real people on the screen.
I do not mean that in an anti-superhero movie sort of way. I mean in the sense that there are many movies made where nothing feels real. Where it doesn’t feel at all like you are watching people in the midst of their history. Some of these movies, like Tár, are wonderful. But the issue with Tár is that its central character is an utter fabrication, and the people whose lives feel real are off to the side. There are moments of course in Tár where Cate Blanchett through sheer force of will and depth finds flashes of human life and creates a sense of reality unfolding. But these moments are a spare few.
To be clear, some or all of this is by design. Lydia Tár is a symbol first, a person second, and only made into a person through Cate Blanchett’s incredible performance. But it is very much not a real film. A friend of mine hates it for this artificiality. He has a very very good rant about it that I love to hear. I also find the artificiality rather less interesting than it could have been. And the last third of that film is so confused and grasping for pathos that it totally undermines its aesthetic project and so one arrives at the concluding scene with a mixed sense of what the film has been for.
But did I enjoy every moment of Cate Blanchett as Lydia Tár wielding objects and walking in hard-soled shoes and sitting with a sweater folded across her shoulders? Talking about music? Talking about composing? Conducting? Did I enjoy that? Hell yeah. Do I find it to be a robust meditation on anything at all? No. I think the film has rather less to say about anything. It is utterly convincing in the visual dimension, but when you stop to listen to the actual words, it’s just pleasing blather. The movie is at its best when it is strange. Those curious scenes when Lydia is haunted by the sound coming from the other apartments. And when she discovers behind one of the doors an image of abject human suffering? That was exquisite. It was a moment of shocking, visceral humanity. Reality.
I also love that it is a movie about making things—in this case, art, music. I like that it has materials and objects in it. I like that there are references to other art. I feel somehow that American cinema has ceased to portray people who read or look at paintings or know about music, any kind of music. So it was refreshing that Lydia Tár had an apartment with books and records in it. That she spoke in allusion and reference. That she seemed to know things about things. In a sea of mumbling, inarticulacy used as short hand for being choked with emotion and stunted honesty, Lydia’s expansive monologues felt refreshing.
In some way, it reminded me of when movies acknowledged that there was some broader culture made up of movies and books and tv shows and plays and records and albums and photographers. But now the closest we get to a gesture to a broader culture is a character dropping a reference to some out-dated meme or the self-referencing recursive easter egg hunt that has consumed television and film these days.
But anyway, there is something phony in Tár, something that requires us to suspend our desire to see a person and to trade that desire in for the pleasure of watching Cate Blanchett move through rooms of beautiful objects and talk about classical music. In that sense, it is successful because, well, yeah, duh, Cate Blanchett in her toxic lesbian era is…always worth the time. I am a Lydia Tár apologist, thoroughly, let her conduct the orchestra, you cowards! Give her a sword!
I loved almost every moment of that movie. It should have been THREE hours. But is Lydia Tár a person? Do we care for her motivations? Do her motivations seem to come from within or do they seem to come from the outside, dictated by the needs of the script? Is there a sense of naturalness to her life? No. But then, one could argue that same thing about Greek Drama. And in that way, what Tár sells is not realistic cinema per se but a fable—stiff and jerky in all the ways that fables are and requiring, as all fables do, certain adjustments in one’s expectations re: honesty, truth, and beauty. One is never moved by Tár. But it is not a film that seeks to move you. Rather, its aim seems to be to delight and prick the zeitgeist, and in that way, it is utterly phony. But, like, idk, I loved it.
After Close last night, I went outside so that a friend could smoke. We talked about the film and how it had been rather devastating for a Monday evening. I was feeling particularly woozy—all those scenes of farm life made me remember my own years of running with cousins and my brother through our pine forests and dodging our chores on the farm. My friend looked at me and said that he was still thinking about something I’d told him another time we’d hung out about secondhand smoke. And I said that I was fine and would probably get a tumor anyway, who cared. We went back in so that I could tell the director how much I’d loved his film. He is shockingly handsome, it must be said. And very nice. I wondered how such a nice person could make such a devastating movie. My friend and I walked to a diner to eat and then we walked for several blocks in the wrong direction, away from his car, and had to turn around in the cold and walk in the right direction.
As we walked, we talked more about writing. About fiction and poetry. We talked about the messy implications of turning life into art. I slowly started to recognize where we were in the city. I recognized it as the part of SoHo where I get my film developed, and it was shocking to be approaching it from a different direction at a different time of night with someone other than myself. I was momentarily distracted by this, the seeming hyperreality of stumbling upon something familiar but in a way that makes it totally alien. It seemed to summarize my feeling these days. That my life is familiar to me, but it feels alien. Or I feel alien in my life. That hard, brutal distance between myself and the world hurts so much.
My friend drove me home and then I walked him to a CVS so he could buy a soda. We talked some more about fiction and poetry, about friends, about our lives, about our bodies and ourselves. We talked about love and the impossibility of intimacy and letting ourselves be known and loved. He smoked another cigarette, and I wanted to tell him about this thing my family used to believe. That if you stood in smoke too much, it made you piss the bed. There was something in the smoke that followed you into your sleep and did something to you while you slept that made you pee. But just then my friend was telling me something profound and vulnerable, and the moment passed, and I thought about that as I went to sleep. How there was a moment when I almost shared something I was feeling, right then, but I lost my nerve and the moment passed and what if for the rest of my life, that’s how it is, that I’ll go on missing the moment, the crucial moment, when I might have said the thing that would have let someone know me in some new, strange way that might make me loveable or knowable. What if I went on letting other people say their thing and got to know them, but they never got to know me. What if that was the only way I could ever experience closeness again was through my own negation. It was a moment, just a moment, where I felt so vastly lonely. But then it passed, and my friend’s expression changed, and we talked about something else.
This morning, when I woke up, my eyes were burning. For a moment, I wasn’t sure if it was the smoke or from all the crying.
The question is not "to be or not to be" but "okay..... I be, but how do I get through all these slings and arrows?" And you do through your writing. This piece is so beautiful and funny and vulnerable and dear. Sometimes I have no idea what you're writing about, but sometimes I totally get it.
Reading this reminded me of a close friend I had in sixth grade (?) Tony G. His family was from Mexico, he was first generation, I was oblivious to immigration back then... we hung out a lot and I remember someone ... I can’t recall who, but it was a girl, asking if we were gay... it was my first time where that was even a possibility because doesn’t everyone have friends they ride bikes with, steal tacos from the Taco John’s across the street with, watch tv with... hang with? No? Just girls? Yeah... his whole family moved away from their house one day... just... gone, no goodbye from him, nothing... we were so close and yet... I often wonder what happened to him... I see him laughing in my minds eye, followed by a far-off stare... it plays over and over like that, like a gif.