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‘Close’: Behind the Scenes of the Most Heartbreaking Coming-of-Age Story of the Year

After the complicated life of his previous film, "Girl," Dhont realized it was time to write from personal experience.

ZURICH, SWITZERLAND - SEPTEMBER 28: (EDITORS NOTE: Image was altered with digital filters.) Director Lukas Dhont poses at the 'Girl' portrait session during the 14th Zurich Film Festival on September 28, 2018 in Zurich, Switzerland. (Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images for ZFF)

Lukas Dhont

Getty Images for ZFF

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Lukas Dhont had a complicated journey with his first feature. The Belgian filmmaker’s “Girl” won the Camera d’Or at Cannes in 2018, secured distribution with Netflix, and became his country’s Oscar submission. In the months that followed, however, the movie was criticized for portraying a young trans experience from a cis male perspective, with a straight actor in the lead role and a violent ending that struck some viewers as exploitative. The backlash caught the young director off-guard and left him wondering how to proceed.

“We put our hearts and souls into it,” he said over coffee in New York this week. “It was really a process of learning for me. Those perspectives opened up a lot of my knowledge around how one innocent piece can be looked at from different ways.” At the same time, he was constantly getting asked what he would do next. “It was quite a challenge,” Dhont said, “going back to a desk and a white page and really finding something we wanted to talk about with the same energy and passion.”

Then, with his writing partner Angelo Tussens, he began to chart a path forward. Since some aspects of “Girl” stemmed from Dhont’s experience with feeling ostracized as a queer child, he decided to double down on the lens of his own experiences. “The first film was about femininity in many ways,” Dhont said. “I knew I wanted to make something now about masculinity.”

The result is the latest Belgian Oscar submission, a Grand Prix winner at Cannes, and — in a year filled with cinematic coming-of-age stories — the most heartbreaking of them all.

Close” follows the experiences of 13-year-old Léo (Eden Dambrine) who forges a close, quasi-romantic friendship with Rémi (Gustav de Waele) that turns sour when they’re bullied by homophobic classmates. Léo responds by pushing Rémi away, a decision that catalyzes his suicide. Despite that bleak turn of events, “Close” finds its young protagonist coming to terms with the tragedy and the forces behind it as he attempts to reconnect with Léo’s grieving mother (Émilie Dequenne). It’s tough stuff but handled with a sensitivity that funnels its dark foundation into an absorbing critique of the traditional road to manhood embedded in societies worldwide.

“For a man to say to another man that he loves him or even be physically intimate with him is something that is really not as visible,” Dhont said. “A lot of the examples and visuals around masculinity are often linked to violence or distance. That is something that we tried to find the cinematic translation for — that deep desire for connection, and what happens when that connection is lost, not only to another person but to your own interior world.”

“Close”

Dhont experienced that himself in his youth, years before his own coming out. “As puberty came, I felt like the emotional connection was something often considered to be feminine or not desired in this vocabulary of masculinity,” he said. “As I became older, I thought that was very much linked to a queer experience because I felt that I was queer.”

However, while developing the story of “Close,” his views broadened. Tussens shared Niobe Way’s 2013 book “Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection,” which includes interviews with 150 boys discussing their male friendships. “I read these testimonies of these boys and how they changed over the course of several years as they hit puberty and became teenagers,” Dhont said. “They lost their vocabulary or didn’t dare to speak in the same way again. That really hit home. I connected to that very deeply. There was this point early on in my life where I started to fear intimacy with other boys. I think therefore I pushed them away even though I didn’t want to and maybe they pushed me away, too.”

While “Close” doesn’t travel through time, it shows how such a foundation can be established through environmental pressures, and what it takes to potentially overcome them. In that sense, it almost functions as a mystery, with its grief-stricken child forced to investigate how his own hangups led to irrevocable circumstances. Dhont approaches that situation with particular care by avoiding any explicit details about the suicide itself. “We worked very closely with a prevention center in Belgium,” he said. “One of the things, when we were talking, was that becoming too concrete with visuals that can actually spark this behavior.”

Dhont’s journey into cinema was informed by some of the themes explored in both of his movies. Like his “Girl” protagonist, he initially wanted to be a dancer. “The way I moved was considered very manneristic and feminine,” he said. “It was embarrassing the people around me. That was the moment I gave up dancing. My mom rented a camera from a friend of hers and gave it to me because she realized that I didn’t want to dance anymore. So I completely put my focus on filmmaking.”

He entered film school with the initial goal of making blockbusters. Then he watched Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Bruxelle,” and the epic look at a woman driven insane by the pressures of her routine spoke to him. “I had always seen the camera put on war zones or forests with dinosaurs,” he said. “All of a sudden there was this camera on a woman in the kitchen, cooking, and it was an image I’d seen in reality my whole life with my grandma and my mom. I realized that you can put the camera really close to where you are. You can film the world that you already see.”

That revelation, in tandem with consuming the lyrical filmographies of Wong Kar Wai and Pedro Almodóvar, yielded his own evolving aesthetic: a penchant for poignant work engineered to comment on grander patterns across modern society. “I didn’t want to use cinema necessarily to entertain,” he said, “but to place the camera on something I saw when I was growing up.”

Close Lukas Dhont

“Close”

A24

And then there were the Dardenne brothers, Jean-Pierre and Luc, Belgium’s most revered contemporary directors. Dhont first learned of their work when he saw “La Promesse” in high school. “What really interested me was that they used the camera as choreographer to build up through mise-en-scene the unity of time and space,” he said. This year, Dhont’s movie beat out the Dardennes’ “Tori and Lokita” as Belgium’s Oscar submission — but Dhont said he didn’t detect any hard feelings. “They really said early on, ‘We want to have you do it because you’re young, you have the right energy,’” he said. “They’re already writing their next one and they really clearly passed that on. They’re incredibly kind and everything is good between us.”

Now, Dhont is back to assessing his next moves. He signed with CAA after “Girl” broke out, but has yet to decide if he wants to tackle a project outside of Europe, where he has government support. “For now, I really have the interest of making things I write myself and starting from there,” he said. “There are still some films we want to create and shoot from very precise perspectives. These stories are a representation of the world we live in right now.”

He was gratified by the way his experience with the release of “Girl” led him to a movie that continues to resonate with audiences in a way that bodes well for its potential spot on the Oscar shortlist. “I think for me it was really about not shutting off, not putting on an armor when you get feedback from people who have different ways of looking at what you’ve shown,” he said. “It’s about engaging in that conversation. It has made us more aware, and stronger, in the sense that we have learned a lot about the topics we have tried with care to put onscreen.”

A24 releases “Close” theatrically on January 27. It received a qualifying run in New York and Los Angeles earlier this month.

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