Close director Lukas Dhont says that he wanted to be a dancer before he dreamed of being a filmmaker. That might not surprise viewers who’ve seen his 2018 debut feature Girl, about a ballet dancer in transition. Girl won the Camera d’Or and the Queer Palm at Cannes, but Dhont’s love for dance, or rather the pain of losing that love, shapes his extraordinary second feature, Close. The film, one of 2022’s best, heartbreakingly explores the relationships that define our lives and the pain of betraying those nearest to our hearts. (Read our review of Close here.)
Dhont’s latest film is the story of two young friends, Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele), who are inseparably close. When they film begins, they run through the fields with abandon and tire themselves playing war. As school starts, though, their classmates begin to ask questions about their bond. They insinuate that their friendship is something else. The boys face an experience similar to what Dhont encountered when he abandoned his love for dance: kids learn very harmful gender norms, codes of behaviour, and ways of being on the schoolyard.
With Close, however, Dhont delivers a powerful work that should speak to anyone who has been in Léo or Rémi’s place. The film, which was nominated for an Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best International Feature as Belgium’s submission after winning the Grand Prix at Cannes, should inspire a new generation of viewers to rethink the codes of the schoolyard. It’s a film that, devastating as it is, breathes with the optimism of a young voice. If only older generations of moviegoers had a film like Close during their teen years, so many lives might have taken different paths.
That Shelf spoke with Lukas Dhont via Zoom ahead of the Toronto release of Close.
Pat Mullen: In Girl, you looked at the story of a teenager at an important point in her life, and in Close, we have a story of two boys again in their teenage years. What draws you to stories of adolescence?
Lukas Dhont: From very early on, I knew that I wanted to be a filmmaker. I was 12, and it was at the same time that I actually stopped my first dream of becoming a dancer. When I was a kid, I wanted to dance and my mom drove me to all these dance classes, like R&B and ballet. I wanted to do it all. I remember this moment when our class went to the seaside for a school trip. At the last night of the trip, we all gave a small performance. I decided to do a dance solo to Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter,” which was brave of me, but, unfortunately, was also the start of shame because that performance didn’t go well.
At the same time as I switched my desire to cinema, I understood that the body that I was born in came with certain expectations and codes of behavior. My way of behaving, dancing, reacting was considered ‘other.’ It was considered different. It made me feel uncomfortable for a very long time. When I started this dream of cinema, it was all about sinking boats, aliens, and zombies. But when I went to film school, I realized that thanks to other people who have gone before, like Chantel Akerman, Céline Sciamma, and Xavier Dolan, I realized that cinema could speak about those expectations and norms in our society that limit so many of us.
Is it hard to revisit that age?
When you’re young, you think you experienced things by yourself. Growing older, I understood that all those kids in the classroom were going through the same thing. From the moment they came on the playground, they understood the hierarchy of our society in which people are divided in groups with labels, expectations, and ideas connected to them. For so many of us, if not all of us, those don’t work. Some of us are more aware of that than others are. In the films that we made up until now, I feel like we wanted to speak about that. We wanted to speak about that confrontation with the world when we’re young—the beauty and the brutality of it—and have this way of looking at the world that comes from the body on which we place and transmit these expectations.
You said “we” there a few times. In Close, you’re drawing from your own life and it’s more personal, more interior than Girl where another person’s story was the frame of reference. How does that work when you’re writing a film, like you are with Angelo Tijssens, when the subject matter is so intimate and personal?
Weirdly enough, it started a bit the same way as with Girl. The starting point for this film was research done by an American psychologist, Dr. Niobe Way. She followed 150 boys between the age of 13 and 18. At the age of 13, she asked them to talk about their male friendships. What is so beautiful is that when you read these testimonies, they are testimonies of love. The language that these boys use is so vulnerable, so emotional, and so open. When she re-asks these boys these questions at ages 16, 17, and 18, you feel how they don’t dare to use that vocabulary anymore. You feel how they are told not to, how they have linked language of emotion to femininity. When I read that research, even though I didn’t grow up in America, I felt deeply connected to them. At that young age, I also started to fear that language.
That is how our films come to exist: I find stories of others that actually are stories in which I recognize myself. The poetry is that what I thought of as a personal agony turned out to be a universal pain.
Is there a different layer of vulnerability to writing a film like Close than to Girl?
I would say the writing was vulnerable. What’s different is that this is a second film. It is a very different energy than writing a first film. When you write a first film, you are, in many ways, just doing it. It’s very physical; it comes out of the body. It’s something that you wanted to do for a long time. With the second film, you try to unwind that mechanism, but you are also in your head thinking, “Is this going to be good enough?” I was more insecure writing for a second time than I was writing for the first time. That is an added vulnerability, but that doesn’t have anything to do with the themes. It’s more linked to me personally.
I’ve read the story of how you found Eden on a train and you mentioned that he stood out to you so clearly. What were characteristics were looking for in young actors to play Léo and Rémi?
When I saw Eden, I saw him in his reality talking to his friends. He was so present, but there was also a world behind his eyes. I felt like I was seeing so much happening on that face, in that expression. What I look for with young people is a sensibility to the themes and to the writing of the film. If you want to work with young people, they have to be excited about what you want to talk about. Their reading of the script is an important factor for me. What I look for is vulnerability, or the possibility to be vulnerable. We make films about characters in which things are happening on the inside, so you look for young people who are able to exteriorize that and convey the implosion of something happening on the inside that isn’t vocalized, but is felt. When I saw Eden in that train, I saw that happening already.
The decision for choosing the two of them was not them individually, but them together. When they came to one of the casting [sessions], it was clear that they share the chemistry that you only share with someone else so often, and you can’t explain it. With some people, you feel a magnetic force between you. With them, that was the case. From the beginning, we saw the possibility of a collaboration because of how they were helping each other. They didn’t want only themselves to do well, they also wanted the other to do well.
I love the relationships the boys have with their mothers in the film. You have two young newcomers with Eden and Gustave, then two pros like Léa Drucker and Émilie Dequenne. How is it directing first timers with veteran actors?
I feel like there are the things I do, and then there are the things that they do. The beauty of a veteran and a newcomer is that they both have something that the other doesn’t have. When you use those things carefully, they strengthen each other in an incredible way. What I do is “before set” and what they do is “on set.” I spend a lot of time with them and I make them spend a lot of time with each other. We do daily things, like going for a walk at the seaside. We spend an evening together and make dinner. We spend moments together and, in an informal way, we will sometimes talk about the film, but not much.
What is important for me is that they start to care for each other and build up confidence not only with each other, but also in themselves. Bit by bit their connection and confidence becomes stronger and stronger and stronger. I need it to be strong before we arrive on set, because then there are parts where I guide them, but there are also parts where they guide each other. A young person who has never acted before maybe falls back on a veteran for nuance, for change, and for surprise. At the same time, a young person will surprise them in equal measure. At the center of acting is surprising. A young person can disarm a veteran. A veteran can take out the emotional strength and the possibility for acting from a young person.
When you were spending so much time with the boys, did the characters change at all to shape their experiences?
When they read the script for the first time, there was a framework that they could be co-authors of this film and inject it with their own ideas, personalities, and ways of talking because, of course, I’m not 13 anymore. It was important to give them the freedom and the possibility to create. The characters are a sort of blanket in which they can hide. I feel like Léo and Rémi are Eden and Gustav, in a way.
I notice the shirt you’re wearing in the background looks a lot like the colour tone of the film. Like, it’s the exact same shade of red as Rémi’s bedroom wall and the red used in the poster. What inspired that? You see a lot of red too as the seasons change with the poppies.
When I start to write a film, sometimes it feels much more like a dance spectacle than a script. There’s always images coming first. For example, the image of the two boys in the flower fields was one of the first images: that idea of two boys running, like in a colouring book, represented an idea of childhood innocence. But the flower is also a symbol of fragility. Fragility in that first part would become an important factor, and brutality would slowly arrive and corrupt that world. Having these machines cut the flowers from the fields and change the tonality to a dark earth atmosphere was something that visually translated that movement. With Rémi’s room, we gave it that colour of red because it has different meanings and it changes tonalities from the first part to the second part of the film. It’s an iconic space in the film with feelings that are unsaid.
So much has changed for young people since we were the boys’ age. Now kids have to deal with bullying through social media. Why didn’t you include that in Close?
I wanted to give it a timeless quality, first of all. There was also so much I wanted to talk about in their reality. If I wanted to add the digital world, that would have added this universe of young people that needed its own time and its own themes to be discovered and explored. I wasn’t as interested in that as I was in their reality because of that dream I had of being a dancer and that very physical world. I look at themes from the perspective of the body and physicality, or the loss of physicality is incredibly important. Although the digital world is incredibly interesting, it wasn’t really the place to discover and unwind the impact of that physicality.
What did you learn about yourself, or your teen years, through looking at these boys?
This process has been going on for a long time. By listening to these boys, I feel like they uncover exactly how strong their need for connection is, how strong they need a different vocabulary when it comes to masculinity and even sexuality. I felt disconnected as a young person, and I felt like that was totally me. Talking about being young especially, and the conflicts of being young, it’s also a way of liberating myself from a weight that I felt being young. I’m incredibly optimistic and excited to see a young generation try to deconstruct and shake off all these expectations, pressures, ideas, and norms they have to deal with.