One of the most celebrated films of 2022 was Lukas Dhont’s Cannes prize-winner, “Close,” which affirms the Belgian filmmaker’s status as one of the most gifted directors of children since Spielberg. In a performance that is the equal of any nominated for Best Actor this year, newcomer Eden Dambrine plays Léo, a boy whose extremely tight knit bond with pal Rémi (a wrenching Gustav De Waele) cause their peers to start questioning the boys’ sexuality. Suddenly wracked with unease, Léo begins to push away Rémi, and as far as plot synopses go, I should stop there. What I will say is that Dambrine and De Waele give two of the best child performances in all of cinema, while Léa Drucker and Émilie Dequenne (the star of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s great 1999 Palme d’Or winner, “Rosetta”) are equally compelling as their respective mothers. This is such a perceptive film about the minds, hearts and souls of sensitive young people that it unearthed memories of mine I had long forgotten.
Just days before “Close” was nominated for the Best International Feature Film Oscar, Dhont took time to speak with RogerEbert.com during his stop in Chicago about how he approached working with the film’s young actors, each making their screen debut here, and the ways in which this film explores what it means to be a man.
When we last spoke in 2018, you told me, “The most important reason why I make cinema is to have an effect on people and to show them something that they may not have seen before.” What is it that you wanted to show with “Close”?
When I went back to my desk and sat in front of that blank paper, I had a realization that for the longest time, we have been focusing the camera on men fighting with each other, such as on the battlefields, and not so much on men holding onto each other. I knew that I wanted to make something about masculinity; I just didn’t know yet in which concrete form. Then I stumbled upon research by an American psychologist, Niobe Way, who followed the lives of 150 boys between the ages of 13 and 18. When they were 13, she asked them to talk about their male friendships, which at that age, they all do with a sort of loving, tender vocabulary. They openly express the love that they feel for each other, and they are not afraid to do so. But as they grow older and they go through puberty, they stop daring to use that vocabulary. It seems like they start to distance themselves more from that language of the heart.
I felt very connected to these boys because I was around their same age when I started to push away and be pushed away in my friendships. I have a strong sense of regret now that I have not validated those relationships as much as I should have, and I’m trying to unlearn that tendency to keep people at a distance now in my adult life. Of course, when you’re young, you think you’re the only one feeling these things and I also thought that was very linked to me being queer. I had seen this as being a queer experience, but what these boys showed me and what they gave me is this realization that it was actually about being a man, and I wanted to speak about that. I wanted to, on the one hand, show this tender, loving connection between two young men because I know that we have so rarely been offered that. But I also wanted to show how we, as a society, murder the beautiful friendship between boys, and how we have torn them apart. I’m hopeful that this can change, but all too often, we create loneliness, and with this film, I wanted to confront that or look at it in the eye.
When I was in my early elementary school years, I had a male friend whom I hugged and openly said that I “loved.” This was a cause of concern to my parents since it demonstrated an uncommon sensitivity that would lead me to be bullied later on in junior high. To what extent did you discuss the characters of Léo and Rémi with Eden and Gustav?
I often say that I feel like I can learn a lot—we can learn a lot—from listening to 13-year-olds, because what I feel is that they are still strongly connected to the heart, and we tend to lose that as we grow older. We start to say things because society expects and accepts us to say them. I find that there is a sort of pure radicalism to what kids can say that goes to the absolute essence of things. I had Eden and Gustav read the script before the last round of casting because I wanted it to not only be us choosing them, but also them choosing us, and this conversation that we had around it was extraordinary. I do feel that how they reflected on the script really reshaped what the film became—not the dramaturgy, the framework or the other big things, but the nuances. One thing that I said to them very early on is, “I don’t care about what the sexuality of these characters are or what your sexuality is either because we don’t need it to tell this story.” So that topic was not present in our conversations.
Of course, how a film is interpreted depends upon the eyes that look at it. I know that a queer audience will watch this film and connect to a deep wound that is linked to being queer. But I also know that an audience that is not queer will connect to that wound in a different way because we have all been heartbroken by friendship. We have all been pushed away and we have all pushed others away. It’s also a film about grief and guilt, which are things we have all felt to some extent, and my aim was to really be at eye level with them and talk very openly about them. Of course, Eden and Gustav are two young boys growing up in this world who feel the pressures of masculinity and have experienced loss themselves. There is also a darkness in this film. “Close” addresses mental health, in a sense, and for a long time we looked for a way to do that while keeping the violence that happens off screen. We could still talk about these things with the boys because, of course, they live in this world and they know about these topics, but we didn’t have to address them frontally.
What did you see in Eden when you first discovered him on a train?
There is a sentence in a book by Édouard Louis whose words I will paraphrase as, “How do I feel at this young age that I have lived so many lives?” When I looked at Eden for the first time, I felt there was a world hiding behind his eyes. I can’t explain it any other way than there was a sort of nostalgia already to him somehow. I just saw these eyes and this face that were very expressive, and seemed to be able to convey a lot of emotion. In a film that is very much about our internal worlds and about one’s implosion, you need to find those people who can translate with the face, and with him, it really seemed possible.
At the film’s Cannes press conference, Eden spoke about how he and Gustav were encouraged not to memorize their lines, which seemed to connect with your stated desire to grant your actors a “freedom to exist.”
I had gone to a film school that combines documentary and fiction. While there, I made small documentaries and small fictional work, and I never chose between either of the two. This has proven to be a key for how I sometimes work. I feel that in the films I make now, I have a very naturalistic documentary approach with the actors, and I have a very impressionistic style when it comes to the use of color and light, which conveys that what you are seeing is fiction. With all of my actors—the adults included, but especially with the kids—after they have read the script once, I tell them, “We’re not going to read it again.” They love that because the thing they worry about most is learning text. I tell them, “We don’t have to learn any texts,” and of course, they didn’t imagine that this would be the case. What I explain to them is that we’re going to work for six months, and over the course of that time, and I will guide them toward knowing exactly what they need to do during the shoot. Of course, they have still read everything and captured it.
During these six months, we spend time together and watch each others’ favorite movies. Gustav’s favorite movie is “Singin’ in the Rain,” so, thank god, these kids also have taste. [laughs] We go walk by the seaside and make pancakes together. Every so often, I will ask them, in a very informal way, questions like, “Why do you think Léo doesn’t wait for Rémi at that moment?” Eden will be like, “Huh,” and what happens is he becomes active. I don’t tell him what the reason is, he makes up his own. He becomes a sort of detective for his own part, which excites him because he feels like he is creating, and I need to have that excitement. That is one of the first things that I look for. After the first month, I bring in a camera. When we go to the seaside and walk by the coastline, I invite the camera to become a part of our togetherness. The camera is rolling without me ever saying “action” or “cut.” So what they get used to is that sense of me inviting in a camera without asking them to do anything differently as what they were already doing. They start to feel that there is a sort of fluidity between the document and documenting what we are doing and creating.
I install a fine line between documentary and fiction during that very early rehearsal because what I really want to arrive at is this complete transparency between them and the camera—them and the audience, actually. I want them to feel like there is no camera since the camera will be going up really close to their faces. I can only achieve that if they have gotten used to it, and that object has become something that they don’t care about anymore. I will also create similar bonds with the adult actors. One of my requirements for the adults in the cast is that they will be present to create a sense of family and intimacy with us. Léa Drucker reminded me of something that I said to her in an early conversation because she thought it was remarkable and yet very simple. When she asked me during the first year, “How do you envision this collaboration? What is important for my part?”, I just said, “The most important thing for me is that you love Eden.” It’s basic, but I also think it was the pillar from which her performance got that sort of raw authenticity. She could not have played the scene on the bus in that way if there had not been that connection between them. So I think how I work with actors comes a little bit from that documentary approach. I do look for a way in which you feel that they are existing rather than they are performing.
“Close” is now playing in theaters.