Belgian director Lukas Dhont's new French-language film Closea nominee for Best International Feature Film for the 95th Annual Academy Awardstells the touching story of two 13-year-old best friends, Leo (Eden Dambrine) and Remi (Gustav De Waele), who begin school together and face numerous challenges from the people around them.
This is a personal project for the gay filmmaker; Dhont combines his past experiences with universal themes to reach a wide audience. He wrote Close with Angelo Tijssens, whom he previously collaborated with for the film project Girl, about a transgender girl who pursues a career as a ballerina.
Besides the Oscar nomination, Close has been taking home trophies such as the Grand Jury Prize at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival. Dhont spoke up Close and personal at the Four Seasons Hotel Chicago while hosting an early screening of the film in the Windy City.
Windy City Times: You grew up in Belgium, but where are you based now?
Lukas Dhont: I am still in Ghent, Belgium.
WCT: What is the gay scene like in Belgium?
LD: It is big! [Ghent] is similar to Brussels, where there is a big party scene.
WCT: Is there a big Pride parade?
WCT: Was it difficult coming out as gay?
LD: Yes it was. When I was a younger person, I wanted to be like the other boys. I felt the pressure to conform at a young age. It took me many years to find the authentic and true self that I have now.
WCT: Was Close based on some of your experiences when you co-wrote it?
LD: I tried to start from a very personal place, and as I wrote I tried to leave myself behind very quickly, so that I could look for a way to phrase it as universally as possible.
I am not Greek, but I strongly agree with the idea of collective catharsis. When I write, I try to look for a way in which to connect. With this movie, I wanted to connect people from different worlds together. Viewers may connect with it personally, but that is interpretation.
I look for things that are shared and what we have all been through. We have all been brokenhearted over friendship. We have all felt guilty in a way that has trapped us.
WCT: So you are not just writing for a straight or a gay audience specifically?
LD: I try not to exclude anyone.
WCT: Where did you find Eden Dambrine and Gustav De Waele to play the main roles?
LD: I found Eden on a train. I was taking a train from Antwerp to Ghent in Belgium. I was listening to Max Richter's music. Everything becomes very cinematic when you listen to his music.
WCT: I listen to Max for my meditation class.
LD: I love him! I was listening to him and on the train while I am looking around. As I look next to me, I see this angel talking to his friends and being very expressive. I could see a world hiding behind his eyes. Life was giving me a gift, and I decided to act upon it. I asked him if he would consider being in a film. He became super-excited, and I found out afterward that he thought I had offered him the part.
His mother came with him to the castings, along with all the other people from around Brussels who we had found while scouting. Our casting process was quite elaborate in the sense that we worked with groups of boys in workshops for a full day.
For young people who have never acted before or been in front of a camera, we needed to build their confidence so that they dared to propose and show things. I have found out that I can learn a lot by observing someone in a group. It can show a lot about a person's personality.
This was an ideal way to get to know how they are. Eden and Gustav came together in a group and had never seen each other before. There was chemistry and magnetism between these two boys. We also noticed the physicality which was important for this film.
Before the last round of casting, they read the script. This led to a very beautiful and intense conversation. I think we can learn so much as a society by listening to 13-year-olds. They don't say things because society accepts them or expects them tothey say things because they are so purely connected to the heart. There is a pure essence to what they say that I think is incredibly powerful.
They really helped reshape the last version of the script. The framework and dramaturgy were there, but that conversation deeply influenced what the play has become.
WCT: How emotional is it to watch Close now?
LD: I can't watch the film anymore. The film for me now is a gathering of details. I have worked on these details for four years. I have seen it over and over, whether in my imagination or in the studio. I have tried to perfect every detail as well as possible.
It will take me some time to see Close as a film again. I see the film again through the eyes of the audience. I hear them when they speak and when they feel, then I feel the film all over again. I feel the film through them and don't actually watch it.
WCT: Has there been an audience question that sticks out in your mind?
LD: I like to answer all of the audience's questions. I can answer questions from my point of view, but there is no real answer because this is a subjective medium. The film exists only when two eyes watch it. Everyone watches it from their own background, culture and life experiences. That shapes what the film becomes. I push it in a direction, but there is a fluidity to its themes and impacts depending on who watches it.
WCT: What would you like audiences to take away from Close?
LD: Close is a film that looks regret in the eyes. We have all regretted things profoundly and carried them with us, although we may have not confronted them.
It is also a film about the importance of power and the fragility of our connections. We live in a world where we often get separated. I find this as a reminder of the caution needed sometimes to celebrate each other.
WCT: Is there an LGBTQ+ story you would still like to tell?
LD: This is our second film. There are many things I would like to speak on.
We are working on a new film right now and slowly developing it while finding out what the desires are. The moment I go back to my little desk, I will start shaping it the way I think is necessary.
WCT: So this new film will be with Angelo Tijssens again?
WCT: Is this a partnership that works really well together?
LD: Yes, he's a great sparring partner and even cooks really well. He's a dramaturg and looks at the arc of a story. I connect with him and we work together well.
WCT: He is gay also?
LD: Yes, he identifies as gay.
WCT: Was there one thing that you both learned from Girl that you brought to Close?
LD: There were so many things. We learned every step of the way during the process. I try to grow and push my limits within creative boundaries. I look for something precise that can be felt in a strong way.
I learned a lot while making Girl about directing and being the head of the ship. I worked to keep things on track and moving in the same direction, so I feel like I gathered a lot from that experience.
WCT: We both returned from the Critics Choice Association Awards this week. Did you meet a celebrity there that you would like to work with in the future?
LD: I loved Dolly De Leon's performance from Triangle of Sadness. I think she is an incredible actress and I saw her at the Critics Choice ceremony. Michelle Yeoh and Cate Blanchett would be great also!
Close opens in Chicago theaters on February 3, 2023.