When we meet the 13-year-old principal characters of the Oscar-nominated drama Close, the boys embody the film’s title with no seeming self-consciousness. Léo and Rémi (played by newcomers Eden Dambrine and Gustav De Waele, respectively) play outside, share a bed, lavish praise upon each other, sometimes rest against one another in public. A kind of relational idyll that transcends words is what Lukas Dhont, who directed and co-wrote Close with Angelo Tijssens, set out to convey.
“A friendship in childhood, for many of us, is this stage where love exists in its freest form and where it doesn’t need to have a name,” Dhont told Jezebel over Zoom last week. “[It’s] when connection still is so pure and essential to us, and beautiful, I suppose.”
But beauty, as they say, fades. At school, Léo and Rémi face scrutiny for their closeness. Some girls ask whether they’re a couple, and a boy calls Léo a “faggot.” Léo starts to pull away from his friend, signing up for hockey separately and skipping their formerly shared bike rides to school. What once existed in the splendor of ambiguity has been tainted by the confines of other people’s perceptions and definitions. For Dhont, that ambiguity was the point.
“I told the actors when we had our first conversation, ‘You know, I don’t care about the sexuality of these characters, and I also don’t care about your sexuality,’” recalled Dhont. “It’s not about that. We are very unused to seeing a film with two boys lying in bed together when the film is not eventually going to be about their sexuality. For the longest time, intimacy between boys or men [has been] very often and immediately sexualized. And what if it is not? I think there’s this big space and this big opportunity to start showing intimacy between men that is not sexualized.”
Dhont’s French-language picture (Belgian’s entry for the Academy Award for Best International Feature Film) was inspired by his reading of Niobe Way’s 2013 book Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection, but it’s also a response to the way masculinity is represented in culture, as well as his own experiences. “I remember well this moment in puberty where I started to push away my male friends because I started to fear intimacy,” he said. “I think we have built up this vocabulary and this canon around masculinity that too often is about brutality and too little is about intimacy. I wanted to address that through the prism of a young friendship.”
Dhont said he rehearsed with his young, first-time actors for six months prior to filming. “We really tried to spend as much time as we could building intimacy, building comfort, building family,” he explained. “I think people who will see the film will understand that it’s a film in which a lot is about the power of the body, the physicality of teens—the movement, the looks—rather than the explanations or the spoken words. [In the] more physical scenes, we always treated them as choreography, which gave it a sort of intention.”
Close is not a statement on queerness, per se, but it shares certain aspects of frequently told queer stories—there’s a tragedy at its center, which I won’t reveal here, that is very much a trope of LGBTQ+ narratives. But as, uh, close as Dhont gets to specifics of queer existence, he maintains there’s a universality in his themes. “As men grow up, I think we teach them that the only place they can really find intimacy is through sex,” he said. “That is the place they’ll start to look for it. We don’t stimulate that connectedness to the heart and expressing this authentic need for connection and for tenderness. I think we cut off something incredibly important that a lot of us afterwards go look for in our adult lives.
“There’s this very beautiful saying, I don’t know it exactly, but I’ll try to mimic it because it has always stayed with me: I feel like the task of my adult life is discovering which parts of me are really me and which parts of me I have constructed to protect myself,” he continued. “I resonate very much with that sentence. I do strongly believe that it’s a sentence that could be applied also to people who are not queer.”
Dhont’s film before Close, 2018’s Girl, was his debut and much more explicit in its queer themes. It followed trans teen Lara as she trains to be a ballerina, and Close was envisioned as a companion piece to it—a story about masculinity following one very much invested in femininity. So far, Close hasn’t received nearly the ire that Girl did. Though that movie premiered at the Cannes Film Festival to acclaim, winning three awards, it was soon the subject of much debate for its portrayal of the trans experience. Among things, it featured a cis actor (Victor Polster) playing a trans girl, the suggestion that tucking was harmful to its character’s health, and a climax based on self-harm. “The film isn’t just another case of irresponsible casting or harmful stereotypes, like much of Hollywood’s long, ugly treatment of the trans community; it’s the most dangerous movie about a trans character in years,” read a review in The Hollywood Reporter that encapsulated the controversy.
Looking back on the reception, Dhont was sanguine. “When you put something in the world, you also put it there to have a conversation around,” he said. “Understanding the way that different people look at the same thing with different backgrounds, with different expectations, with different sensibilities is something incredibly rich and complex to learn from. Girl was this confrontation with other ways of looking. I’m always interested in learning from that.”
When we spoke last week, it was ahead of the announcement of this year’s Academy Awards nominations but after the Golden Globes, for which Close was nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film but lost to Santiago Mitre’s Argentina, 1985. “Sometimes you’ll get lucky, and other times you won’t,” Dhont said, shrugging. Did that mean he’d had a laissez-faire regard for the then-imminent Oscar nominations? Not so fast.
“I mean, not caring would be strange,” he said. “So of course I care. I care for the conversation around this film. I care for Léo and Rémi and everyone who has ever felt like Léo and Rémi. I care for changing this vocabulary around masculinity. I care for not constantly focusing on the battlefield, but focusing on the tenderness. So, I care. If I would stop caring, then I don’t know what I would do.”