To see his youthful face, it is hardly surprising that Lukas Dhont chose a childhood story for his second film. After the success of Girl (2018) to critics, Camera d’or at the Cannes Film Festival, the 31-year-old filmmaker won the Grand Prix for Closethe story of Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele), two tight-knit friends separated by the onset of adolescence.
The story is intimate, on edge, filmed as close as possible to faces that light up with this unique joy that children’s games have, nourished by the imagination. Rémi has brown hair, an artistic inclination and a look that sometimes takes on a secret melancholy. Léo is his blond and solar double, which recalls Victor Polster, the interpreter of Girlthan the director himself.
The ravages of the norm
We often try to read in a work the self-portrait of its author. But here, the biographical material of Lukas Dhont’s films comes from his feelings, more than from reality. “I feel the need to show things that I experienced as a child, when I was in conflict with the norms related to gender identity and sexual identity.” Make way for images and metaphor. In Girl, these are the norms of femininity through its heroine, a young trans dancer. In Closeit is “the pressure of masculinity” through a story of friendship.
Léo and Rémi are 13 years old, an age “very fragile hinge between childhood and adolescence”. An age of changeover, where free carelessness gives way to self-awareness constrained by the gaze of others. This gaze is embodied in the school, a societal microcosm in which the filmmaker has the intelligence to observe the insidious violence, where cinema has accustomed us to more frontal visions of school bullying.
Thus, the little girls who ask the two friends if they are in a relationship “don’t ask it out of malice, but because that’s how we’re conditioned to look at this physicality, this sensuality between boys”, emphasizes Lukas Dhont. No excess or condemnation of the words of these classmates, who only reflect the codes with which they grew up. “I want to be benevolent with all my characters, look for complexity, gray areas”explains the filmmaker.
Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele) are 13 years old, an age of changeover, where free carelessness gives way to self-awareness constrained by the gaze of others. | Minuet / Diaphana Films / Topkapi Films / Versus Production
This delicacy shines through in the staging as well as in the poised and thoughtful expression of Lukas Dhont. Complicit games, reciprocal attention, affectionate looks and gestures… The filmmaker captures childhood friendship with a subtlety that is all the more overwhelming as this strong bond begins to crack.
“I wanted to show tenderness and vulnerability.” And that the film is tender, even in its most indescribable violence. “Often childhood is portrayed as something very beautiful, but there are also those for whom the shadows show up earlyhe says. But if it is important for me not to avoid talking about it, I do not want to create images of violence.
The shadows are those that haunt Rémi (insomnia, worried eyes), who blames himself when Leo, gripped by perceptible anxiety about his own feelings and the fear of being ostracized by the group, distances himself from his lifelong friend. “Rémi, in a certain sense, represents the childhood that we lose”explains the filmmaker, while Leo enters adolescence.
This passage from one world to another and the loss it entails, Lukas Dhont stages it through movement. In his effort to integrate, Leo plays team sports, adopting their manly codes. Also, his ice hockey costume comes to embody the emotional state of the boy full of guilt. “We treated it bodily as a feeling that locks us in and that many can never talk about.” The costume and the silence weigh on the child’s body, to the point of making it bend.
In his effort to integrate, Léo (Eden Dambrine) plays hockey, adopting the manly codes of team sports. | Minuet / Diaphana Films / Topkapi Films / Versus Production
To understand this omnipresence of the body, we go back to the childhood of the filmmaker who, at the age of 13, abruptly put an end to his dream of becoming a dancer –“the ultimate artistic dream”– disturbed by these people “embarrassed because, in their eyes, [il] moved[t] like a girl”. “Closeit’s a film about the unsaid”, on what one cannot formulate, for lack of understanding oneself. The body therefore takes over to express the inner torments in a different way.
Between Léo and Rémi, it starts with a childish game that becomes aggressive: “The brutality comes first between their bodies”, explains the filmmaker. The most moving aspect of the film lies in this veracity of the child’s body, of what it contains of tensions and despair.
In a poignant scene that follows this hand-to-hand fight, Rémi collapses before his bewildered parents, his little being shaken by inexpressible incomprehension and despair. That’s what we call “talking through movement”sums up Lukas Dhont with his cinematographic language, as precise as choreography. “When I started writing screenplays, I realized that I was writing dance shows more.”
A movie family
What is particularly moving when listening to Lukas Dhont talk about his film is the family “we” he uses, emphasizing teamwork, where in others the “I” imposes itself without difficulty. His method seems to be entirely collaborative. For example, this work carried out for a year with its two interpreters, discussing the scenario “so that they feel in resonance”.
“It was very important for me to create daily life with them. We made pancakes, we went for a walk, we watched their favorite movies, singin’ in the rain for Gustav, a film by Tim Burton for Eden. When we started shooting, they felt free to add or change things, because we had built that trust. For me, it was also very important that their emotions were not used against them. Back to the sweetness.
We will not be surprised either that the filmmaker has chosen to show them Moonlight, masterpiece on masculinity. We then remember how the little boy in Barry Jenkins’ film finds, before becoming the harassed teenager, a moment of brief carefreeness through dance.
“Filmmakers inspire meenthuses Lukas Dhont about his contemporaries. How Sébastien Lifshitz creates documentaries, how Céline Sciamma makes the invisible visible. This feeling that cinema can give someone the feeling of being seen and loved, I find that very beautiful. This is what constitutes its other raw material. Childhood memories merge with those of these films “who leave their mark and are registered in [lui]».
“Being a parent is to seek, to try”
Close owes its birth to two images. “That of two young boys running between the flowers”a “key memory” of his childhood in the Flemish countryside. “The second image is that, full of tension, of a woman and a child in a car. I found out that this picture was from The Good Son [Joseph Ruben, 1993, ndlr], that I had seen as a child.
When we tell the filmmaker that this scene first evoked for us that of the Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999), where the child, seized with the terror of not being believed, takes advantage of a traffic jam to reveal his secret to his mother, Lukas Dhont smiles: “It’s true! Sometimes we don’t know what comes from the influence or from us.
His influences only confirm his sweetness. Because from Céline Sciamma to Barry Jenkins, passing by M. Night Shyamalan, the colleagues quoted by Lukas Dhont all have in common this sensitive attention to childhood and to those who take care of it, fathers and mothers (embodied in Close by Léa Drucker and Émilie Dequenne) often outdated, but always present in the midst of a brutal world.
“I want to be generous with the parents. Because being a parent also means searching, trying, even when you don’t always have the vocabulary to express yourself. And the filmmaker concludes: “I am someone who always seeks to find beauty in my life. In the film, we do it in the colors, the light… by going to find, even in the hardest moments, something right, of course, but also something that gives hope.
by Lukas Dhont
with Eden Dabrine, Gustav De Waele, Emilie Dequenne
Released on 1er November 2022
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