In another lifetime, Lukas Dhont would be a dancer. As a young boy growing up in Dikkelvenne, Belgium, that was his dream. "But then, there was this moment in time where I understood that my way of moving, my way of composing myself, my way of dancing was considered very feminine," he says. On a school trip, he performed a dance routine and was mocked by his classmates. "And I was not someone who at that age had the courage to stand out."
Dhont quit dancing, and his mother, a fashion teacher, gave him his first camera instead. He dreamt of making movies he could escape into, leaving his own life behind. But then, in film school, he saw for the first time Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles by fellow Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman. "That movie deeply impacted me, because what I saw was this possibility of also placing the camera right next to me."
The writer-director made his feature debut with 2018's Girl, about a trans girl who dreams of being a professional ballerina, and won the Caméra d'Or award for best first feature film and Queer Palm at the Cannes Film Festival. His next film, Close, about the friendship between two 13-year-old boys, also premiered at Cannes and won the Grand Prix. At the 95th Oscars, his film is nominated for Best International Feature Film.
"13-year-old me, camera in hand, is jumping up and down screaming in his bedroom!" Dhont said of the nomination, paying special recognition to Akerman, who showed him that cinema could "become a space to confront the expectations, codes, and roles assigned to me as a teenager."
MORE: With 'Close,' Lukas Dhont Wants to Break the Cycle of Toxic Masculinity (Exclusive)
Below, Dhont shares with A.frame five films that have had a profound impact on him.
Where to Watch: The Criterion Channel
Written and Directed by: Chantal Akerman
Chantal Akerman meant a great deal in my film journey, because she's the one who made me realize that film could be this confrontation with reality. What is interesting is, for me, is that sometimes a piece only stands out through time. I don't know if Jeanne Dielman stood out as much when it came out, or was celebrated as much as it is now. Now, it is number one on Sight & Sound's list. There's this really interesting element in the appreciation of her work, which is time.
Time is also so essential in her work. She takes time to show what she wants to show. She's not afraid of silence. She's not afraid of boring us — let's just name it like that — because she knows why she's doing so. She knows why she's placing the camera in that kitchen on that woman in the '70s who was assigned that space. In this very elegant way, she showed me the possibilities of the medium in a very different way than I had discovered them before.
I have other films of her that I love as much as Jeanne Dielman, like Les rendez-vous d'Anna. I don't know the English title for that, but the French title is more beautiful. Her work is something I return to every time I to need to get close to the reasoning of why I am in this and why I do what I do. I revisit it in those moments that we all have, where you feel like you don't understand anymore. Jeanne Dielman, in particular, was the film that opened my eyes.
Directed by: Luigi Comencini | Written by: Leonardo Benvenuti and Piero De Bernardi
This is one of the rare films that I found about child grief. It's about two brothers, and their mother dies. We follow their journey with grief, which is very specific, because grief from a kid's perspective is very different than that of an adult. You have that space where there is this understanding and, at the same time, not completely. It's just such a beautiful, tender movie, not only in the relationships between the boys, but also in the way that it deals with this very, very dark theme in a very fragile way.
It's one of those films that feels like it's inscribed in my body. It feels like it seeped into my body. Sometimes with great films, these characters become a part of you, because they connect to you or because you feel like you saw something through their eyes that made you see yourself better. I grieved as a child, and that grieving child really deeply connected to these boys, because I felt less alone when I saw them. I felt like I recognized myself. I think cinema as a place where you can recognize yourself is really, really important, because for many of us, it makes us feel less alone. And L'Incompris did that.
Where to Watch: The Criterion Channel
Written and Directed by: Wong Kar-wai
There's a longing in that film, and I think there's a sensuality in the distance in that film that I connected to profoundly as a queer man. When I was young, love was so much connected to longing rather than to execution. There was always this space between the desire and allowing yourself to move there, which I think is very present in In the Mood for Love. There's this great love story between two people who actually will never physically be together. There's this impossibility of this deep, deep, profound love story, which in a tragic way but in a very human way, I resonated with very, very deeply. And it's a very choreographed film, which the dancer inside of me really, really loves.
The second part of why I love this piece is its visual execution. There's a color to it. There's a sensation to it, which often feels like a painting. The beauty of the costumes, the lighting in the spaces, the colors of the palette of everything combined, which really is a key for me in what I aesthetically want to achieve. I did a film school that combined documentary and fiction, and I have a very documentary approach when working with the actors. But in my visual style, I really am drawn to color. I'm drawn to expressionism. I'm drawn to symbolism, and therefore, the universe of someone like Wong Kar-wai is one I get incredibly inspired by. That is a film I revisit every year. It's also one of these films that I feel like I want to exist in. I'd be happy to live in In the Mood for Love and just stay there my whole life.
Directed by: Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer
I needed to have a documentary on here because I am very influenced by documentary. I remember seeing Grey Gardens, and I think my mouth was open for most of that movie. There's this idea that reality can be crazier than fiction. There's this idea of this insanely beautiful relationship between these two protagonists that is deeply inspirational, because you're like, 'Oh, human connection is such a weird thing!' But there's also this relationship between the makers and the people who are in front of the camera.
Little Edie is in love with the cameraman and constantly wants to perform and show for him what she can do. I remember her on the staircase dancing for him, and this seduction between characters and the camera that I feel like will stay with me forever. The beauty of the making that film, of the intimacy of being with these two people in that space and seeing them, really seeing them with all their beautiful and less beautiful sides, felt profoundly honest and profoundly complex. For a long time, it made me question whether I wanted to make documentary or fiction, because the power of documentary and the power of seeing people, showing people to people, I thought was really, really inspiring.
Written and Directed by: Céline Sciamma
I think it's a movie that's going to stand the test of time. It is this love story that is made visible in a time that, so often, it was made invisible. But then, also, it's about that female gaze on the world. It's about the female artist whose name was erased too many times. Everything from the writing to the place where the camera is, the sensuality of this love story, it's extraordinary.
I think Céline Sciamma is one of the greatest filmmakers of our times, and she makes me want to be better. She's someone who challenges me. In deconstructing a language that is constructed for us, she's someone who's able to let go of these ways we are supposed to think. She's someone who lets go of the ways we are supposed to represent the world. She changes the codes, she changes the expectations, she changes the end of a queer love story. In many ways, she's maybe ahead of me, which I like. I feel I can learn from watching her films and watching her cinema. She inspires me, and she's also French, which is great.