Close/Dead to Me

By Amy Kim

Two Strikingly Different Stories About the Processing of Grief

Grief has been a prominent theme in stories for centuries. There is something deeply fascinating about being faced with personal loss and forced to overcome it. There are also many different ways for stories to explore grief, hence its popularity as a motif. I recently got the chance to watch the Grand Prix-winning Belgian film Close and the 5-time Emmy-nominated comedy Dead to Me, and was struck by how differently each story tackled this intimate subject. Despite both being about a personal tragedy, they executed their stories in two starkly opposed directions.

Close is a tender film about how two teen boys’ intimate friendship gets strained and eventually leads to a tragedy. The first half of this film is entirely devoted to building up to that painful event, and it works magnificently. It manages to be subtly devastating as it showcases the beauty of their relationship before its untimely end. It’s also anchored by fantastic performances by Eden Dambrine and Gustav De Waele, who both do so much with their facial expressions while never once feeling inauthentic. Dambrine in particular is able to convey so much with his eyes, and might give my favorite film performance of the year. But by being understated and refusing to spell anything out, the first half of Close proves itself to be a masterwork of dramatic storytelling.

The second half of Close, on the other hand, loses a lot of the emotional investment, momentum, and authenticity that made the first half so phenomenal. It trades thought-provoking emotional insights for melodramatic soap opera storytelling. I still cried during the second half, but I attribute that far more to the strength of the acting than to its directing or script. The performances are really what push the second half to be anything beyond passable. The ending is also incredibly disappointing, as it chooses to focus on the most bland, obvious takeaway rather than something truly unique and insightful.

Overall, the strength of Close's first act cannot be overstated. My love for it is so strong that despite my complaints about the second act, I would still give it a fairly high score. And honestly, I don't think I would be as harsh on the second half if the first half wasn't as impressive as it was. Really, my main issue with Close is how conventional it and its tackling of grief became in its second half. It unfortunately managed to have nothing terribly interesting to say by the end after promising a tearjerking look into how toxic masculinity can destroy a friendship.

Dead to Me, on the other hand, is a dark comedy about a vengeful woman named Jen (Christina Applegate) grieving the loss of her husband to a hit-and-run and an optimist named Judy (Linda Cardellini) she befriends who is clearly more than meets the eye. The first two seasons are focused on the fallout of a traumatizing event, and how the dynamic between Jen and Judy shifts as they learn more about the circumstances that led to said event. The final season, however, introduces new conflicts while wrapping up its older ones in a messy but nonetheless beautiful bow. While this show’s writing is fantastic, witty, and gripping, the show as a whole belongs to Applegate and Cardellini. Without their excellent chemistry and pitch-perfect delivery, Dead to Me would not be quite as marvelous as it is. James Marsden is also a highlight and has an endlessly watchable dynamic with both Applegate and Cardellini, but the show really does belong to its main duo. The supporting cast is admittedly a bit underwritten (especially in the final season), but Jen and Judy are both so fleshed out and interesting that I'm not sure it bothers me much.

While Dead to Me can be depressing, it manages to balance that out with hard-hitting humor that feels unflinchingly honest. Not everyone processes their guilt in the same way; the characters in Close do so in vastly different ways than our Dead to Me duo do. But the varied avenues for grief displayed in the latter truly sets it apart, in my opinion.

Like Close, Dead to Me made me sob uncontrollably several times. Like Close, Dead to Me’s best aspect has to be its duo of acting powerhouses. But unlike Close, Dead to Me takes its themes of grief and elevates them to something profound, meaningful, and undeniably its own. I honestly only thought of comparing these two stories after sitting through Close’s second half, thinking about how I wished Close had done something more meaningful and striking rather than merely being heartbreaking. There’s no problem with preferring Close, or with preferring how Close handles its subject matter! But personally, the way Dead to Me found the comedy in sorrow while retaining its emotional core wound up speaking to me a lot more.

Close: 7.5/10

Dead to Me: 9/10