Following its Grand Prix-winning premiere at Cannes, writer-director Lukas Dhont’s tender, heartbreaking, and healing sophomore feature Close, has gone on to be acclaimed at festivals around the world, and is among the five works nominated as Best International Feature Film at this weekend’s 95th Academy Awards. Beautifully shot by cinematographer Frank van den Eeden, Close centres on the captivating relationship between two thirteen-year-old best friends, Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele), whose seemingly unbreakable bond is suddenly and tragically torn apart. The screenplay, co-written with Angelo Tijssens, was partly inspired by the studies of Dr. Niobe Way, a professor of developmental psychology at New York University, as detailed in her book Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, which examines the loss of intimacy between teenage boys as they grow older.
Born in Belgium, Dhont graduated from the KASK School Of Arts in Ghent, where he had focused on fiction while exploring the possibilities of documentary. His 2018 debut feature Girl also premiered at Cannes in the ‘Un Certain Regard’ section, going on to win the Caméra d’Or for Best First Movie and the Queer Palm among other honours.
With Close, which was nominated for the Palm D’Or and Queer Palm at Cannes, still playing in select US theaters and available on demand, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann had an exclusive conversation with Lukas Dhont about his inspiration for the film, working with his young lead actors, his response to the Oscar nomination, and his favourite queer culture makers.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: There are some stunning sequences of the boys running through flower fields in the first part of the film, I believe that’s a similar environment to the one that you grew up in yourself in Belgium?
Lukas Dhont: “Yes, I actually grew up close to a flower farm in the Flemish countryside. When we were writing this film, and I realized that it would be told through the prism of a young friendship, the very first image that came to mind was of the boys running in between the dahlias. I think I’d unconsciously captured that image from my young years. I remember running through nature with my friends and as we started to dissect it, it became this image to represent childhoods and innocence and the fragility of life, which is at the core of this film. Nature takes on a very important position throughout this piece because we follow the flower fields through the seasons and see how nature impacts the characters.”
I love the connection, that bond that we see between the two boys, quite a lot of which is expressed in their eyes and in how physically intimate they are with one another. I could definitely have watched an entire film just observing the two of them in each other’s presence and taking their bike rides together, it’s really beautiful. How intentional was it to give the audience the feeling of wanting that part of the film to last forever?
“That ‘s the point, right? I think we all long for those days, those moments in our lives, when we all ran freely, when love didn’t have to have a name, and when connection was still sensed so strongly. When we were working on the dramaturgy of the film, we realized everyone would want to stay in the first 15 minutes and that it would never last long enough, and that is of course, life. But it was also important for what we wanted to speak about throughout Close. The film is so much about the confrontation with a brutality that seeps in when these young men understand that in this world their intimacy and their tenderness is looked upon as something not to be valued, just as the flowers get cut from the fields. It’s a film about the transition from the Garden of Eden to puberty.”
I love the symbolism in the film and how one could read it quite metaphorically and yet there’s a real naturalism to it and almost a documentary feel in the way that we observe your characters. That’s a beautiful marriage of those two forms, those approaches.
“I went to a film school that combined documentary and fiction. When I started at 18, I was already very convinced that I wanted to make fiction, yet I still chose that school. So something inside of me must have been interested in both forms. I can remember a teacher showing us Grey Gardens, which is a documentary that really marked me. I was like, ‘wow, reality is crazier than fiction!’ I learned so much through making documentaries about the way that I wanted to approach actors. My main work with actors is trying to look for an authentic place that I know through them the audience will be transported into something felt. Yet at the same time, with the visual style and the approach in writing, we very much work with colour and light and expressionism and something very styled to remind us that this is fiction. So marriage is a great word. I do see this as being a marriage between the two and I think we live in a moment where the line between them is becoming even more fluid and I love that.”
As the two boys start a new school, that closeness between them is questioned by the other kids around them. The girls ask if they’re a couple, then Léo gets called a derogatory name. Essentially, the kids around them are reading it as these boys might be gay. It is not necessarily about sexuality though, but more about society’s exceptions of masculinity. Though as audience members I also think we’re conditioned to question why they so close. Obviously, you’re coming to this as a queer filmmaker with your own childhood experiences too.
“This is a film about how we as a society are so conditioned to look at male intimacy immediately through the lens of sexuality. I think that’s how we murder the beautiful friendships between boys from early on, because in this masculine universe—that’s so much about dominance and competitiveness and being stuck with emotions—somehow we value loneliness more than connection. I really wanted to show that very tender, intimate connection between these boys and then also show the loss of it, because I think it’s an incredibly violent thing. I myself grew up queer and I remember that moment in time when I was young and wanted to belong to the many rather than to myself. I started to become fearful of the intimate and therefore pushed away other boys. This film starts from that place of the regret that I feel for the love that I deprived myself of and for the things I broke when I didn’t know the impact of the breaking yet. As an adult, I realized that that’s a human experience, not only a queer one. It’s the experience that many boys—straight, queer, bi, or whatever—have felt. It’s what many people have been through in friendships, because it’s just what happens when we’re young and we’re discovering so much about ourselves and the world at the same time.”
It’s something that’s rarely spoken about and I think that’s one of the reasons why people have responded to this film as they have because it beautifully articulates something that’s rarely even acknowledged. We have to talk about your two young leads, Eden Dambrine and Gustav De Waele. I know you had a long pre-production period of around six months working with them before you started filming. What was the most valuable thing that you got out of that experience?
“The most valuable thing is that we got to know each other profoundly. When people ask me if directing adults is different to directing kids, I often say that it’s not about whether they’re an adult or a kid, but more about their personality. You direct everyone in a different way because people need different things. As I got to know them profoundly, I knew what it is was that they each needed from me in terms of direction. The most important part of what happened in those months though was that I introduced the camera to them very early on. I wanted to arrive at this point where the camera was no longer an intruder, but it became a companion, an object that they would allow to see their vulnerability and their emotion, which is not that easy. Whether you’re an adult or a kid, it’s difficult being so vulnerable when you’re being filmed. So that was one very important element of that time while we came to understand each other and created the sort of team in which collaboration was the keystone for what we were about to make.”
You were even open to suggestions for their own dialogue weren’t you?
“Yes, because I’m not 13 anymore, but they were and so that was an important thing to use. They only read the script once at the very beginning. It was important for me that they read it so that it was transparent and they knew everything that was about to happen in the film. We had a great conversation about its themes, about friendship and heartbreak in friendship and loss. I think that we can learn a lot by listening to that age group because they’re still so closely connected to the heart and they say things in a pure, radical way which is incredibly inspiring. From that open conversation came many ideas and many possibilities. I was very open to that and very intrigued by what they would add to the script and to the lines. I think they added a lot.”
What does it mean to you that Close is among the five films nominated for an Oscar as Best International Feature Film?
“We’re incredibly honoured. Being celebrated to that extent is not something to take lightly. It’s an enormous privilege and I feel incredibly happy to be on this journey with the actors, who are nearly 15—I have to say nearly 15 not 14, otherwise he’ll get angry—and 16. It reminds me of the absurdity of it and really reminds me to live in the moment rather than only being focused on the destination. I’ve wanted to make films since I was very young and I have been dreaming about the Oscars since I was young. Even if those dreams have changed as an adult, there’s nothing as powerful as reliving those childhood desires. I feel like a young version of me is jumping up and down on the bed and going crazy! I feel very lucky to be here.”
You’re always very stylishly dressed, so have you got your outfit planned for the Oscars?
“Yes, I have. I’m going to keep it a surprise until the night. The only thing I can say is that it will be designed by someone who comes from our country.”
Lastly, what’s your favorite piece of LGBTQ+ culture or person who identifies as LGBTQ+; someone or something that’s had an impact on you and resonated with you over the years and why?
“One of the filmmakers who really inspires me a lot and makes me want to do better and to challenge myself and deconstruct the language and find those codes, is fellow Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman. She is someone who showed me the way and has been incredibly important for my work and someone whom I deeply admire. I’m also going to name Céline Sciamma. She’s someone who I truly, deeply admire as well. I’ve also been incredibly inspired by Hunter Schafer in the series Euphoria. I think that acting performance is just extraordinary. Queer culture is my cup of tea. I watch and I read queer content all the time and I am so inspired by the queer community and by everything that they put into this world.”
Is there a book that you’re currently reading that you would recommend or one you’ve read recently?
“One of my favoruite books is Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. Right now, I’m reading In Memoriam by Alice Winn, which is a new book with a queer love story at the centre set during World War I. I’ve only read 20 pages so far, but it’s already completely mesmerizing. I recently read Swimming in the Dark by Tomasz Jedrowski, which I think is extraordinary. So those would be three queer books that I’d recommend.”
By James Kleinmann
Lukas Dhont’s Close is nominated as Best International Feature Film at the 95th Academy Awards, being presented in Los Angeles on March 12th, 2023. Close is playing in select US theaters and available on demand. For screening and on demand details visit the A24 website.