The Belgian director speaks on his heart-wrenching, Oscar-nominated second film Close, which explores the relationship between two 13-year-old boys, Léo and Rémi
How you choose to pronounce Lukas Dhont’s Oscar-nominated second feature, Close, might change after a tearful viewing or three. Dhont, himself, pronounces the title in terms of nearness (like, for instance, how close Close came to winning the Palme d’Or), but, by the close of Close, its wordplay is apparent. Even more profound on a rewatch, Close is undoubtedly Dhont’s best film – it’s not even close.
Strangely, Close was close to being called We Two Boys Together Clinging, a reference to a Walt Whitman poem and a David Hockney painting. “That’s the first 15 minutes of the film,” says Dhont, a 31-year-old Belgian director who speaks softly and thoughtfully. “We follow this young friendship, running through flowers, chased by imaginary enemies. It’s this Garden of Eden in childhood where love doesn’t have to have a name yet.”
While Close isn’t an M Night Shyamalan mystery, Dhont, whose first film was the 2018 drama Girl, starts our conversation in a King’s Cross meeting room in February by requesting no spoilers. What’s up for discussion is the first pronunciation of Close: in Belgium, two 13-year-old boys, Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele), are inseparable as friends. Bathed in sunlight and warm colours, they play games all day, ride bikes to and from school, then will sleep in the same bed, an arm around the other.
If they were adults, I tell Dhont, we would infer another type of relationship. As kids, it’s pure innocence. “But even when they’re kids, people read different things,” Dhont counters. “We’re very unused to tender images between boys if they’re not sexualised. I wanted to show intimacy in a young, masculine universe.”
After early scenes depicting bliss, the duo cycle to school where, in the playground, the camera pulls out forebodingly like the end of Michael Haneke’s Caché. “They were in their bubble, their safe space, their universe,” Dhont explains. “I wanted to zoom out in that moment because they leave their intimacy. The playground is a microcosm of a society that’s divided into groups with codes, norms, and expectations.”
It’s never declared whether Léo or Remi are gay, straight, bisexual or unsure. However, Léo, who plays ice hockey and can join laddish “Ronaldo versus Mbappe” debates, is visibly agitated when female classmates ask if he and Rémi are “together” or “more than friends”. Léo insists they’re “brothers”; Rémi, in the corner of the frame, observes with silent anguish.
Dhont and his cowriter, Angelo Tijssens, never stated their sexual orientation in the script. “I didn’t want it to be about their sexuality,” says Dhont. “I didn’t really care about their sexuality. It’s more about intimacy being immediately sexualised. As a society, we murder beautiful friendships between boys because of the imagery we create.”
At a certain point, the relationship breaks down, transforming Close into an entirely different film, albeit one that still examines the societal pressures upon young boys. At Cannes, the devastating drama quickly garnered a reputation for turning hardened critics into sobbing wrecks. At the London screening I attended, people around me cried for the entire second half – it was, admittedly, quite annoying, but a testament to Dhont’s storytelling.
Ultimately, the Cannes jury awarded Close the Grand Prix, unofficially the second prize, which it shared with Claire Denis’s Stars at Noon. At the ceremony, Denis walked off with the trophy, leaving Dhont with nothing to hold for his speech. With a cackle, Dhont insists he didn’t mind. “Claire Denis’s films have meant so much to me. I felt privileged to share a stage and award with her.”
Dhont is no stranger to Cannes. Girl, a character-study of a 15-year-old, transgender ballerina, won four of the festival’s prizes, including the Camera d’Or and the Queer Palm. With its rave reviews, Girl was expected to be a major awards player – then a backlash occurred. Dhont had cast a cisgender actor in the lead; to some, the onscreen suffering was exploitative. In October 2018, Girl was still winning prizes, including at the London Film Festival; in December, it was left off the Oscars nine-film shortlist, its US release was bumped, and The Hollywood Reporter ran an op-ed stating “Girl is a Danger to the Transgender Community”.
I ask Dhont if negative feedback fed into the development of Close: in the same way Steven Spielberg made The Fabelmans, a personal drama that can’t be accused of telling someone else’s story, was Close an extension of looking inward? He shakes his head. “I believe we can talk about ourselves through characters that are not ourselves,” Dhont says. “Which not everyone agrees with, but I believe in that. What was interesting [about the backlash] was that it raised a question for me: how do I address violence without trying to be violent? I don’t know if I have an answer, but I’m looking for it.”
He adds, “When we put things out in the world, there should always be an invitation to conversation, never a wall. I make films as a bridge to an audience.”
With regards to depicting violence without being violent, there are some who believe Close is also emotionally exploitative. I mention that Georgia Oakley, the director of Blue Jean, spoke to me the previous day about how there’s more to gay cinema than queer joy. “I love seeing queer joy,” says Dhont. “It’s absolutely necessary and maybe we haven’t seen enough of it. But I don’t believe there should be elements that we censor. Talking about queer joy or trauma should be able to exist next to each other. Maybe that proportion has been off, but it’s necessary to speak about both.”
Dhont is working on new movie ideas with Tijssens, at least one set in France. But he’s reluctant to reveal too much, suggesting they’re prepared to start afresh after the Oscars campaign. Even if Close doesn’t win the best international feature trophy, I say, it’ll still be a queer coming-of-ager to rewatch for years to come. Then again, given our conversation, is that even the right description?
“It’s so, so interesting,” Dhont says. “All of us, including me, try to understand and categorise things. But my answer is: it’s also a queer film. It has queer wounds, but it’s much bigger than that. I know that a queer audience relates very strongly to it, because it’s a dynamic they have felt. I know that we have deprived ourselves of much love out of fear, out of shame. But I think what I realised growing up is that this is not only a queer experience; this is an experience many of us have had, especially men.”
Anecdotally, Aftersun and Close seem to be the two post-pandemic films that have left audiences crying uncontrollably. Do movies about children unlock our tear ducts? “I watched Aftersun twice,” Dhont says. “That film speaks about depression in a male character that I don’t know was offered that space before. It taps into a sensibility I connect to very much, and is connected to Close. You know, when we’re young, we feel so many things for the first time. Life tells us to move forwards. It’s only when we’re adults that we think back and realise what happened.”
Close is released in UK and Irish cinemas on March 3.