Sunday, 6 November 2011

Close To Leo Review

Plot: A family in a small town in Brittany tries to keep the HIV positive status of their older son a secret from his younger brother. When he begins suspecting something, his elder brother takes him on a trip to Paris to help him face the facts and strengthen their ties.

Christophe Honore has quickly risen within the ranks of French cinema in the last decade, thanks to its particular style that sees him quite happily navigate between the unsentimental and the whimsical. The majority of his films are about one thing and one thing only, love, and if you have not seen that absolutely fantastic Les Chansons D'Amour then I'm afraid you have not lived yet.

Tout Contre Leo/Close To Leo is a film he directed for French TV in the early 00's, based on his own novel, and that is now getting a well deserved UK DVD release. For fans of French culture, it is worth noting that his co-writer, Diasteme, was a well known figure of journalism in the late 90's. He was an editor at "20 Ans", a magazine that hid a wholly subversive core within its innocent young women's mag appearance (imagine the editorial team of Vice taking over Cosmopolitan). Not that there is any evidence of his subversive past in the film I have to say.

Despite what the plot might lead to believe, the film is certainly not "about" AIDS. Nor can it be classified just within the confine of LGB cinema. It is certainly a lot more interested in observing the relationships between all the family members as opposed to the illness itself. But do not expect some straight forward weepie, and inspirational scenes, Philadelphia it ain't. There is much subtlety on display here, and none of the obvious scenes you would expect with such a subject.

And it is as raw and unsentimental as anything the French director has done since. Early scenes in a small town in Brittany must hold some autobiographical elements as this area is where Christophe Honore grew up in, and in recent interview he has acknowledged how much the area means to him. The family he portrays is resolutely middle-class, not in the English meaning of the word, ie conscious of appearances and aspirational, but in the French one rather, as in, wholly unremarkable. He never tries to make them appear more likeable than needed (and this is especially true with Leo), so again, we are a million miles away from your average, worth film. But neither are pushed towards the extremes of a dysfunctional family, that obnoxious indie cinema cliche. They are just realistic and more human as a result.

For all their normality and the lack of artifices, there is the slight danger at first however that the audience might have a hard time properly relating them and for most of the first hour, I did wonder if this was going to be a film to be admired, if not necessarily loved. Fortunately, while never allowing the film to fall into sentimental stereotypes, the last act of the film which sees Leo takes his younger brother on a bonding trip, impresses with its emotional involvement, where so little and yet so much is said.

If I have one reservation, I would say the film could have done without some needlessly lingering scenes of the younger brother naked interactions with a school friend. You almost have the feeling that these are of way for the co-scriptwriter and director to tell their international audience: "Look how French and sophisticated we are, we can get away with this, you prude anglo-saxons that you are".

For all of you fans of Christophe Honore and French cinema, I definitely recommend the poignant and moving Close to Leo, not the easiest watch at time, and a film that will demand your attention, but is so ultimately rewarding. It is out in the UK on DVD on the 7th of November.

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