Lukas Dhont: Close to Cannes

“I travelled a lot with Girl after premiering the film in Cannes,” Dhont explains during this year’s festival. “After a year and a half, I sat in front of a blank page. I’d received some scripts that I felt I didn’t want to do and wondered how I was going to make something that is truthfully me, that can speak about things that I’m passionate about. I returned to my village and went back to my primary school, and I don’t know why I did. It was pure intuition. My old principal, she was like, ‘What are you doing here?’ I felt like I needed to reconnect to something that was less enormous than selling a film but was at the core of me.

“I started to write Close, and it was a beautiful journey of three and a half years working on the film and shaping it so it was saying the most that I could possibly say. I was mixing the film in Amsterdam, and I got a phone call saying the film was selected in the Cannes competition and the elation I felt is indescribable.”

At the winners’ press conference, Dhont, who received a Jury prize, said he was so pleased that audiences appreciated the universal themes and had been moved by the film, which was his intention. The majority of critics believed the heart-wrenching Close should have been awarded the Palme d’Or, but Ruben Ostlund’s flashier Triangle of Sadness had made too strong of an impression.

Close follows two friends from childhood, 13-year-old Remi (Gustav De Waele) and Leo Eden Dambrine), as they start at a new school. When Remi is teased for being different and their close relationship is brought in question, Leo succumbs to peer pressure and distances himself from his friend.

Dhont admits his initial desire was to talk about friendship. “I think during this pandemic, we were all in this moment in our lives where we were very disconnected from each other. That made me realise how incredibly important connection with the people around us is, and how incredibly important friendship is. It’s not something that I have always experienced. When I was young, I was very lonely. That’s because I had the feeling that as a young person I didn’t really belong to the group of girls, nor did I belong to the group of boys. I was really held back from anyone who wanted to come close to me, because I was figuring things out.

“I think we’ve all had incredible friendships in our lives. Sometimes we can lose touch with friends, we can lose friendships, whether it’s our own fault of whether it’s a matter of circumstances, but it can be incredibly heartbreaking. A lot of the time, heartbreak is treated in romantic relationships in cinema, so I really wanted to make a film about the beauty and the heartbreak of friendship.”

He also wanted to create beautiful images and the fact that Leo’s family runs a flower farm means that flowers are a constant, while the boys run through a glorious field in delight. “I think that we’re very used to having a lot of images of war or fighting and we’re less used to images of boys laying in a bed next to each other in a very fragile way.”

Close is the kind of film where the plot shouldn’t be revealed, though Dhont admits the grief in the story is personal. “I experienced grief in a personal way, and I wanted to express that through the perspective of a child as I hadn’t seen that expressed before. Maybe it has been, but I wanted to make it my own.”

Men and boys are less likely to show their feelings. Is it okay to do a queer reading of the story or was that not his intention?

“You know what the beauty of a film is? That I try to put a document into the world that I’m deeply passionate about and that I try to shape it in the best possible way. And then from the moment that movie is shown, it is not mine anymore. It is the eyes that look at it, the audience members sitting in the space. Every reading of this film is fine by me, themes like friendship, masculinity, the violence of conforming to a group or feeling different. They’re all themes that are both queer and straight. So yes, they can be queer or anything.”

Casting young leads is never easy, and Dhont discovered Dambrine (who bears a canny resemblance to the director) in the most unusual circumstance.

“I got lucky with Aiden,” he says. “I had just written down the first lines of the script and I was taking a trip from Antwerp to Ghent when all of a sudden, I saw this young boy sitting next to me in the carriage. He was talking to his friends and expressing himself and I thought, this is an incredible young human being. I went over to him and told him I was not ready to do casting, but I hoped he would come. And so, he was there. Gustav and Aiden were like magnets towards each other, so I felt this chemistry that I knew was essential for the film. They’re very aware of the world and they were both 13 and that was also important for me.”

Close is screening at the Sydney Film Festival, June 8 – 19, 2022

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