In 2018, while aboard a train out of Antwerp, Belgian director Lukas Dhont was struck by an angelic, blonde boy with large, expressive eyes seated close by with his friends. "He had this aura over him that you just thought, 'That boy is made to perform,'" he thought at the time. The filmmaker, who earlier that year had won the Caméra d'Or and Queer Palm Award at the Cannes Film Festival with his debut feature Girl, was in the process of writing a new script with his writing partner, Angelo Tijssens. Dhont approached the boy on the train and asked if he was interested in acting.
Four years later, Dhont returned to Cannes alongside Eden Dambrine, who'd been a French student at a dance academy in Belgium when the director discovered him, to premiere their film, Close. The film, Dhont's second, centers on 13-year-old best friends Léo (Dambrine) and Rémi (newcomer Gustav De Waele) as they begin a new school year and the intrusion of the outside world creates a rupture in their once unbreakable bond that changes their friendship forever. Close is as much a delicate coming-of-age story as it is an interrogation of masculinity, identity, and the closeness that is stolen from young boys.
At Cannes, it won the Grand Prix, the equivalent of second place. At the 95th Oscars, Close is nominated for Best International Feature Film as Belgium's official entry. "They are thinking about their Oscar looks, and they're like, 'What are we going to wear?'" Dhont tells A.frame about Dambrine and Gustav De Waele. "They watched the broadcast in their classrooms with a group of 15-year-olds, throwing books in the air and being like, 'Whoo!'"
"I'll tell you. I think that they are reminding me of the importance of the journey," he considers. "Because when you're in these things, it's hard to not be focused on a destination. I feel like the journey is more special with them, because you experience everything through the eyes of someone who's 15 and just amazed by everything. They're meeting their heroes. They're meeting people they love. They'll just be at this reception next to Colin Farrell. It's great! So, I try to stay close to them, because I do think that is really an important way of looking at it."
A.frame: Your journey on Close started with Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection by Niobe Way, which had a lot of thematic connections to what you wanted to explore in this. How did you then find the story of Léo and Rémi from that?
I think what that book showed me is something I had always felt was a personal regret. The personal regret of pushing people away at a young age because I feared intimacy. Through talking to all these boys, 150 of them, Niobe Way showed me that it's actually a dynamic created in this society. We have built up this masculine culture that is so much about dominance, and independence, and competitiveness that from a very early stage, we murder the beautiful friendships between boys. We tell them that if they want to find intimacy in this world, it's not to be found among each other. It's to be found in sex, actually. That's what we tell men.
The tragedy of that is, of course, that we are deprived of a lot of love, but maybe more importantly is that we rupture something incredibly necessary in this life, and that is the connection to the heart. We rupture for them listening to what they actually truly desire, which is authentic connection. We tell them to not listen to that. In many ways, we all — I want to say they, but we, because I consider myself a part of this — become performers. So, we wanted to talk about masculinity and intimacy through the prism of a young friendship that is, in childhood, still so free, still so pure. This love is still so boundless. But then also show that exact moment in time where that culture seeps in and where those codes of toxic behavior corrupt the tenderness of that young male universe.
You discovered Eden on a train, which is one of those amazing, once-in-a-lifetime discoveries. In casting him, he not only had to be right for Léo, but Eden and Gustav also had to be right together. How did you know they were the ones?
Our casting process was quite elaborate. With young people, I think what doesn't really work is only seeing them for 20 minutes, and then onto the next one. Because they have never done it before! They don't dare to show you what they could show you if you give them the time to propose things. So, what we do is we work in groups of around 20 boys, and with that group, you will have a workshop. In one of these workshops, Eden and Gustav came together by coincidence.
They had never met each other before. And as we spent time together, in those moments between small exercises, we saw that the two of them just gravitated towards each other like magnets. Every moment that they had, they would be standing next to each other, they would be talking. They had lunch together. Aside from what we are creating, we could see that there was an immediate intimacy between them that is so rare, that you do not have with anybody. I remember we had this questionnaire with questions that they had to fill in at the end, and there was this one question like, 'My favorite person is,' and the two of them had agreed to write each other's names on there, because they're very smart and they thought that that would get them the parts.
And they were right.
They were right! They are master manipulators! [Laughs] But what that showed us is that they had something between them that had nothing to do with us. And that was important. We saw that they were collaborators already, somehow, and I think it made us believe in the fact that they would be able to carry this film.
You direct them both to these incredible performances. What have you found is your secret to working with young, in this case, first-time actors?
Being at eye level with them. Because I think sometimes we underestimate how intelligent, and especially emotionally intelligent, young people are. As adults, we sometimes shy away from talking with them in a profound, even philosophical way. But I do think they are great philosophers, because they have this language that is still so connected to the heart. They don't say things because society accepts or expects them from them. They say things because they feel them. In many ways, they are a reminder for us about what truly, deeply matters. So, that is the first thing. And I think they understand that, from very early on, that this is a collaborative process. They read the script once in the very beginning, but then never again because what I want to avoid is that they will start just copying a text, which is so uninteresting.
You don't want it to feel like homework for them.
Yeah, they have to do that in schools. That doesn't spark their creativity. They want to become co-authors of this. That's what excites them. My biggest key to working with actors is actually the fact that I went to a film school that combined documentary and fiction, and I have this very documentary approach in working with the actors in the sense that I rehearse with them for six months, but our rehearsals are never about fiction. They're always about creating intimacy, family, confidence, and comfort in the reality of our being together, and bringing in a camera very early in our process. A camera films us as we are spending time together, as we're doing nothing really special, but what happens is they get so used to that fluid line between being and performing, and the camera becomes such an organic object in our togetherness that, at a certain point, they don't care about it. And they dare to be vulnerable in front of it, and they dare to show those emotions in front of it. That is something that is built up in the six months that the camera is there again, and again, and again. But I do believe that in order to arrive at the authenticity of their performances, we really arrive there through this very documentary approach to direction.
At the same time, when you're working on something that is this emotionally intense and demanding, do you feel a sense of also needing to protect them in this process?
Yeah. One of my better friends, Oliver, who did the castings with us and also was the child coach on set, next to being a teacher and tutor for young people, he's also a psychologist. Which is an ideal combination, because he's someone that's constantly with the kids on set. I think it's important to guide them in an emotion, but I think it's as important to guide them out, you know what I mean? If we had to go into an emotion that was more intense, to then go out of it as fluidly as we went into it. But I also think that for these kids, sometimes... and it's weird. Sometimes an emotional scene is exactly what excites them.
But I think most importantly, when they read the script, they understood why we were making this film. They understood why it was such an emotional journey and why it was also about daring to express emotions in front of a camera, because so often, especially in that male universe, it's something that we do not get to see. And they are incredibly intelligent, and they speak in an incredibly intelligent way about this film. To hear young men, who are young at this moment in time, speak about the pressures of masculinity that they still continue to feel, is really important.
The film is set in Belgium, but do you think there is something about the story of Close that is uniquely or quintessentially Belgian in how you've told it?
We tried to make it as timeless and placeless as possible, because I do feel like it's a story that talks about this very universal wound. That when we are young, when we are that fragile age, we aren't cautious with the people closest to us. We are finding out so much about ourselves and the world in a rapid pace, and sometimes we break things because we do not know the impact of it. When we're presenting this film, whether it is in Australia, or Japan, or America, what I feel really resonates everywhere is that as adults, we understand how impactful those young years actually have been for our relationships. The way we are able to express our emotions, the way we are able to be authentic in this world. Here in America, that very classic idea of masculinity that so often is synonymous with virility is deeply rooted in the culture, so I do feel that opening that up and trying to show this intimacy in that universe is something that resonates profoundly.
What does it mean to you to be Oscar-nominated and to be nominated with this film?
Wow. That's an answer for which I have to go back a lot of years, because there was this moment in time, I was about 9, 10 years old, and I actually thought I wanted to be a dancer. But then, there was this moment where I understood that my way of moving, my way of composing myself, my way of dancing was considered very feminine, and I was not someone who at that age had the courage to stand out. I was someone who felt the shame of the people around me and wanted to belong to a group rather than to myself, so I stopped dancing. My mom saw that my creative outlet all of a sudden came to an end, and so she borrowed a camera from a friend of hers. From the moment that that camera was in my hands, I don't know if I ever dreamed of anything else anymore.
I started to write little scripts with vampires and zombies and had my family and everyone around me act in it. For many, many years, I thought that that was the films I wanted to make — films about other worlds, films I could disappear in, films in which I could escape from this reality, in which the body I was born in came with this set of rules and expectations that I felt I couldn't live up to. For me, cinema was an escape. It really was an escape from reality. At that time, like 15, I had written this script called Blood and Wine.
Thank you. And I thought I would have as many Oscar nominations as Titanic for that film, which unfortunately didn't happen at the time, which I was very sad about. But I thought one day, I'll make a film like Blood and Wine and get nominated. But then, at 18, as I arrived in film school, one of my film teachers who was like, 'Really? Is that the films you really desire to make?' And she showed me Jeanne Dielman by Chantal Akerman, which was the opposite of all these films. Literally, four hours of a woman making meatloaf and peeling potatoes in a kitchen, but that movie deeply impacted me, because what I saw was this possibility of also placing the camera right next to me. I saw that film could also be this space where a filmmaker confronts reality, where a filmmaker shows these invisible walls, and gender expectations, and assigned roles that we are given in this world.
I think it was the starting point of realizing that maybe I was here — and that sounds a little bit spiritual — but that I was here not to go running in a jungle behind Harrison Ford with a camera. I love those films, but maybe I needed to show a young perspective on a world in which that conflict of wanting to fit in felt so violent. So, the fact that we are nominated with that film, that film that is so much about young Lukas and what he felt, which was really painful at the time, is, I suppose, really... I'm looking for the right adjective here. It's really rewarding. It shows me that this very authentic expression can get celebrated, and I never thought it would get celebrated like this.
By John Boone