In Lukas Dhont’s Close, the title gradually goes from descriptor to cruel accusation as the rot of societal perceptions begins to taint what was once a pure friendship. When the film begins, thirteen-year-old boys Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav de Waele) are in the idyll of youth, unselfconscious about how tightly knit their friendship is, or what it might appear like to observers. Theirs is a bond marked by physical affection – they intertwine in bed at night, rest on each other’s arms, whisper into each other’s ears. At school, however, rumours about the nature of their relationship and their sexualities cause Léo to pull away. It’s a reflexive action to the acute embarrassment he feels and the newfound scrutiny he’s under, but its effect is crushing.
For all its perceptiveness about the turbulence of youth and the painful rites of passage that mark growing up however, the film is not without its blind spots. In choosing to stick to Léo’s point of view, it deprives viewers of an insight into Rémi’s mind, making a pivotal moment in the film feel abrupt and manipulative rather than a natural extension of the fallout between the former friends. Dhont still mines his premise for heartache, turning the act of running into a recurring motif that’s wrenching in how it’s employed. Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi first run alongside each other, then away from each other, then alone. The film also takes stock of the rigid scope of masculinity and the consequences of non-conformity.
Close was nominated for The Academy Award for Best International Feature Film this year. Dhont talks about making a companion piece to his first film, working with young actors, and the films that have moved him:
Your first film, Girl (2018), was about a teen having an identity crisis and aspiring to this idea of femininity. With Close (2022), did you want to make a movie about masculinity?
I absolutely wanted to make a companion piece to my first film, which is, to me, among many other things, about ideal femininity. When I was looking for a shape, when I was looking for the right person to tell this story about, I realised that for the longest time we have been focusing the camera on men fighting with each other rather than on men holding onto one another. There's this beautiful Walt Whitman poem that inspired me called ‘We Two Boys Clinging Together’ and I thought there was such beauty in that expression because by the age of 13, that’s what boys do. They cling on to one-another, they hold on to one-another. They are important to one-another and yet that importance seems to be erased so many times. We seem to depict men rather as fighters than as lovers and I mean that in the broadest sense of the term ‘love’. We have become more interested as a society in the performance of masculinity rather than in nurturing the language of the heart and the language of tenderness. And so I really wanted to speak and show, not only the beauty of that tenderness, but also confront us with a society that too often focuses on brutality.
Both the young actors in the film are incredible. I read that you met Eden Dambrine while you were on a train journey? What was that like and what did you see in him?
An extraordinary person. Sometimes in life, we get gifts. If we look around, if we look up from our screens, we see things that are extraordinary. That was the case with Eden. Life gave me a gift there and I saw this young human being who was just so expressive, had these beautiful eyes, and there was a fragility and a tenderness to his physicality that I knew was right for this part. I knew that this role would be a juxtaposition between the fragile and the brutal. I knew that when this character (joined the hockey team) and put on the armour of his hockey uniform, it needed to be this tender, fragile body disappearing in this mass of a suit. I was drawn not only to his expressions but also to his physicality. And when Eden and Gustav de Waele met, there was this sort of immediate chemistry. There was a physicality between them that was beautiful and I realised that a friendship or at least a collaboration between them would be absolutely possible.
When you’re working with children who are so young and the subject matter of the film is so emotionally fraught and difficult, what kinds of conversations do you have with them?
We as a society can learn so much by listening to 13-year-olds. Children speak from the heart, not just because society expects them to say certain things. They have a pure radicalism that is incredibly strong. So I had very open conversations with them about heartbreak, about loss. Too often, people are afraid to speak to youngsters about things that they feel and what the children might be feeling when they experience the world for the first time in many different, powerful ways. I wasn’t afraid to speak to them about things that matter and I think it was actually liberating for them.
The movie follows a lot of Léo’s point of view and I'm curious as to why we don't see a lot of Rémi’s POV and how the slurs or the comments of the schoolchildren affect him.
I wanted to follow the ‘breaker’ of the friendship. I wanted to follow the one who breaks because he doesn't know the impact of the breaking. I wanted to follow the one who is not cautious with the love he receives. I wanted to follow the one who wants to belong so deeply to many that he betrays parts of himself and also betrays the one that maybe he loves most. I was interested in that character. I was interested in seeing how fragmented, how broken the breaker also is. That made me decide or made us decide to follow Léo and not Rémi when there’s a fork in the road.
What went into your decision to include the suicide in the movie? Up until that point Close is a devastating story of this beautiful friendship that is ruined because of the ugliness of societal norms. And then the suicide happens and it adds a whole other layer to the film. How did you arrive at that point?
Primarily because I think it’s important to talk about the wars we wage inside us. We focus on the brutality done to others and I wonder how we can de-stigmatise talking about the wars inside. When we tell young men from early on to become performers and to break something, to disconnect from the language of the hearts, we also create this deep sense of loneliness and disconnection that felt important for me to talk about. I felt like we are stigmatising talking about suicide and mental health. We are all somehow, sometimes confronted with it through other people maybe and yet it is so difficult for us to speak of it. It comes out of this urgency and necessity to address what happens when this world itself is too brutal for some.
Tell me about the colour palette in the film. Léo 's mostly in white. Rémi’s in red and his bedroom also has that vivid red wall. What went into these choices?
I love working with colour. My mother is a teacher, but in her free time she painted. As a child, I’d watch her use colour and painting, be expressive with colour and that’s something I’ve implemented. I love when colour speaks, I love when there is this sensation to it. For example, I knew that the film would start in a field of flowers, in an explosion of colour. I wanted the film’s palette to be culled from these films, so when the film’s tonality becomes darker, it’s more Earth brown. When it came to Rémi’s room, I knew that we needed an image that would show the impact of violence. When it comes to the broken door, I thought it would be powerful to have a red that accompanied that atmosphere. I knew that red could be a colour that, at the beginning of the film, could stand for something completely different: for a safe space, a bubble, the passion and love that the two boys share so intimately. I could see a beautiful shift in meaning – that something which was beautiful now seems harrowing.
Can I ask about the movies that have moved you emotionally in the way that Close (2022) has moved so many people?
I’ve been moved in many ways. Great films move you in ways that could even be anger. I love 400 Blows (1959), I love L’Incompris (1966) by Luigi Comencini, I love Andrea Arnold’s work, I love Céline Sciamma's work, I love Wong Kar-Wai and Pedro Almodóvar. I'm moved by people who dedicate their lives to this field, I’m moved by their passion.