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Lukas Dhont on returning tenderness to masculinity in ‘Close’

The director speaks to us about his Oscar-nominated film, ‘Close’, a look at the deep friendship between two teenage boys

A still from 'Close'
A still from 'Close'

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Before Close turns devastating, it unfolds in a kind of luminous hush. Director Lukas Dhont films Eden Dambrine, playing Léo, and Gustav De Waele, playing Rémi, in fields of blooming dahlias, and in soft golden light indoors. The two of them talk unhurriedly, tenderly. However, there’s a sense that it cannot last; this softness isn’t something we are used to seeing, in films or in our lives. Soon, their schoolmates ask them point blank if they are a couple. This question knocks their world on its axis, with Léo in particular reluctant to put a label to the relationship. 

This is Dhont’s second feature after Girl (2018), about a trans girl who wants to be a ballerina. Close, which releases on MUBI this weekend, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year, winning the Grand Prix. It was later nominated for an Academy Award for International Feature. We spoke to the Belgian director over Zoom about his use of colour, using flower cultivation to show the passage of time, and why he regards his leads as co-authors. Edited excerpts:

Does it bother you that films like yours, both intimate character studies, are often evaluated in terms of broad statements on an issue?

First of all, you are right that what we show is a specific character with a specific experience that looks at the world through one pair of eyes. I think too often when we see one experience presented, we want it to be all experiences. So I resonate with that. But, on the other hand, I do think this film started from a more general political desire—there was this realisation for me that when it comes to expectations around masculinity, for the longest time we have been focusing more on men fighting with each other rather than finding intimacy within the masculine universe. The first desire was to really see the sort of connection between young men that is filled with tenderness and physicality without it having to be linked to their sexuality. I think we sexualise intimacy very easily. So if the film is, on the one hand, deeply personal and deeply specific, I think it has also always been a quest to make it somehow connected to all of us.

It reminded me at times of Ken Loach’s ‘Kes’, especially the sensitivity of the boys, and the casually brutal depiction of sports. 

Yeah, and I love that film. I think it’s an extraordinary portrait of the pressures that we feel from very young. When we went to look for portraits of that fragile age in the history of cinema, it was definitely one of the films that we saw. We, of course, also saw The 400 Blows (1959), Ratcatcher (1999), The Kid With A Bike (2011). It was very interesting seeing all these pieces on young male life. One thing we felt was underrepresented was the importance that boys find in other boys, this sort of connectedness, this tenderness.

Did your lead actors find each other naturally or did you put them together?

Our casting process was quite specific. We would work with groups of around 20-25 boys. We would organise a sort of workshop in which we would give them small exercises. Many of them had never acted before, had never done a casting before, so they were finding out whether they liked it. 

With Eden and Gustav, by coincidence they were in the same group. What was really remarkable is that they were immediately at eye level. It was clear from the beginning that a horizontal collaboration between them would be absolutely possible, maybe even a friendship. And that is unexplainable—you have that with some and you absolutely don’t have that with others. For us, it was important because we knew that so much of this film depends on the connection of the two main protagonists. 

You have said you treated the actors as co-authors. What does this look like in practice?

The boys read the script at the very last stage of casting. I think you have to imagine the script as a sort of choreography. It’s a full script with text and everything but not everything is pronounced precisely. We had very open conversations with them about masculinity because they are two young men. It was often a philosophical—though they are not aware it’s philosophical—conversation with them. Then I asked them to never read the script again. And they loved that, because their biggest fear was that they would have to study a text—in this case, 90 pages—by heart, which is something they have to do in school and which blocks, in many ways, every form of creativity. So from the moment they understood that it’s not going to be like that, they became active, because they had to remember parts of what they read, and at the same time fill in the blanks they did not remember. 

In the six months we rehearsed before the shoot, I would try to make them detectives, in the sense that I would ask questions like, why do you think Léo would not wait for his friend at this moment in time? And I wouldn’t give them my answer; they could make up their own. So what I saw happening is they felt more and more confident to take the lead in their own performance, because they understood that I am not going to dictate what I want them to say, but that it’s actually more about them speaking from a place that is authentic for them. This was not built immediately, this was something that had to be constructed and given time, but from the moment I felt we were there, I knew that our rehearsals were done.

There were other things that happened in those six months as well—for example, after the first month, I brought in the camera, because I wanted to arrive at this complete transparency between them and someone in the audience. I wanted them to get so used to the camera that it becomes this sort of organic object. Confidence takes for each person a different amount of time. Eden was faster in that confidence than Gustav, so it was just about giving them their personal time to arrive there. 

You use colour strikingly in the film. The first thing I recall about many scenes is a particular colour. 

Creativity for me has always been very linked to colour. My mother is a teacher but in her free time she would paint, so whenever I was next to her I always saw this very expressive use of colour. It’s something she passed on to me. 

I went to a film school that combined documentary and fiction. I have a very documentary approach when working with actors but a very stylistic approach when it comes to visuals. When I work with the cinematographer around the different spaces and tonalities throughout a film, we spend a lot of time working on the colour scheme of the piece. 

For example, I knew that in the middle of the film, there was a central image that needed to have impact, that needed to refer to a sense of violence, but which I didn’t want to be violent. I wanted an image that is concrete and, on the other hand, sparks the imagination profoundly. We had this idea of a door being smashed in, which showed the impact of violence. And then I thought, if we add the red, the tonality of that moment becomes so harrowing. The red that in the beginning of the film has a very different tonality, where the boys are in the room and it’s a safe space, a place of passion and of love that does not have a name. 

Léo’s family are flower cultivators; their work can be seen throughout the film. Was it beneficial to have this sort of seasonal underpinning? 

It was definitely one of the more challenging parts of production, because of course we knew that as we filmed different seasons, we would have to follow nature, to shoot both in summer and in autumn. So we had to divide our shooting period in blocks. But we were also working with 12-year-olds, who change rapidly. So there was a production challenge there that was very interesting. 

The flower farm gave us many gifts. I knew that the passing of time in this film would be incredibly important and I wanted to show that in an organic way. With the flower fields, when they get cut and then planted again, we know that time is moving on, seasons are changing. And there is a possibility to show grief in different stages. I also think there was a constant juxtaposition in this film between the fragile and the brutal. It’s present in the setting of the fields—the fragility of these flowers that get cut when the machines arrive. 

You have the same juxtaposition when Léo is in his ice hockey uniform.

Exactly. That’s why we felt Eden was great for the part because he had this sort of fragility and physicality that intrigued us. So many of us have this invisible armour. It seemed very powerful to be able to translate it through that hockey costume, in which this boy literally has a mask on and becomes twice his size. 

There was this image that we never filmed: this flock of black birds all flying in the same direction, in a harrowing and beautiful dance. In many ways this is what the ice hockey boys are in the film, black masses in which we don’t recognise personality, dancing and moving in the same rhythm and formation.

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