At 31, Lukas Dhont already has two art-house hits to his name. The Belgian director’s latest film, “Close,” shows his skill at eliciting intense performances from young actors.
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By Thomas Rogers
Thomas Rogers reported this article from Ghent and Dikkelvenne, in Belgium, and from Berlin, where he is based.
As a child growing up in Dikkelvenne, a quiet, quaint village near the city of Ghent, Belgium, the movie director Lukas Dhont often felt like an outsider. Other boys saw him as too feminine and mocked his interest in dance, except one named Félicien, with whom he shared a close friendship. But as the two approached puberty, Dhont felt social pressures pulling them apart.
“In that moment, that tenderness started to become looked at through the lens of sexuality,” Dhont, now 31, said in a recent interview. “People were divided into groups and boxes, and we were confronted with the idea of labels.” As they became fearful of being ostracized, their friendship evaporated, and Dhont, who is gay, was fiercely bullied for the rest of his school days.
That experience as a young person struggling with expectations around gender and sexuality has shaped both of Dhont’s acclaimed feature films: “Girl,” his 2018 movie about a transgender ballerina, and “Close,” a devastating portrait of a friendship between two young boys in the Belgian countryside, which won the Grand Prix award, the equivalent to second place, at the Cannes Film Festival last year.
“Close” is being distributed by A24 in the United States and is being released in theaters on Friday. It further establishes Dhont as a phenom of global art house cinema and one of its most observant chroniclers of adolescence. And it cements his reputation as a filmmaker who is exceptionally skilled at eliciting intensely emotional performances from young, often untrained actors.
Dhont, who employs loose scripts and encourages his actors to improvise dialogue, said his method resembled that “of a choreographer, introducing movements.” He said his relatively open approach allowed young actors “to bring so much of themselves” to the films. “I create characters for them to hide in,” he said. “They are like co-authors.”
That strategy helped him to coax out two astonishing central performances for “Close,” a slow-burn drama about two 13-year-old boys named Léo and Rémi (played by newcomers Eden Dambrine and Gustav De Waele) whose close bond elicits scrutiny when classmates suspect they are a couple. After a skittish Léo begins distancing himself from Rémi, a series of slights build to tragedy.
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Dambrine, a French student at a dance academy in Belgium, had never acted before Dhont spotted him on a train in 2018 and approached him about auditioning for the lead role in “Close.” Dhont explained that he when he saw the then-11-year-old, he was struck by his “angelic and androgynous” features and “very big eyes.”
In a video call, Dambrine, who is now 15, explained that it had been a “boyhood dream” to act in a movie, and that he had gotten the impression that acting could be fun from watching the blooper reels from “Avengers” films. (He added that when he called his mother to tell her that a stranger had approached him about starring in a movie, she had responded: “Get off the train! Get off the train!”)
His mother ultimately accompanied him throughout the shoot, which lasted two months, in Belgium and the Netherlands. Among other challenges, the film required Dambrine to act out several intensely emotional moments in long, silent close-up. After he nailed a scene, in the first take, in which his character has a breakdown in a doctor’s office, much of the crew began weeping, Dhont recalled.
Dambrine’s mother, whose name is France, said Dhont’s talent for working with young actors was partly a function of his youth. “He is not that far from being a teen,” she said, adding that Dhont’s emphasis on fostering bonds between crew and cast members before shooting, and his openness to improvisation, allowed her son to feel comfortable so he could focus on the emotional elements of his performance.
She also noted that Dhont and Dambrine shared the experience of having been raised by single mothers “who had to figure out how to raise their kids.” The director, she said, “has a lot of empathy.”
Dhont recalled that he had first become interested in film as a child, amid his parents’ divorce, when his mother returned home one night from seeing “Titanic,” James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster. “My mom had been gloomy, and seeing her come back, telling me how beautiful it was,” he said, “I became obsessed with the film, and the feeling that a film could change someone.”
His interest in making movies was bolstered at age 12, when an incident led him to give up his childhood dream of being a dancer. Dhont said that after performing a dance to the song “Fighter,” by Christina Aguilera, at a school talent show, his classmates mocked him even more mercilessly. “I felt so ashamed that I told myself I will not dance publicly anymore,” he recalled.
Shortly after graduating from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, in Ghent, where he studied film, he began making his first feature, “Girl,” at age 26. Partly inspired by Dhont’s own youthful experiences and the true story of Nora Monsecour, a transgender ballerina, the film won several awards, including the Caméra d’Or, at Cannes, but also drew a backlash from transgender people.
Some were angered by the casting in the lead role of Victor Polster, a male actor who won an acting award at Cannes for his performance, while others argued that a climactic incident of self-inflicted violence in the film was exploitative. Writing in the Hollywood Reporter, the trans critic Oliver Whitney argued that “Girl” invited “the audience to react with disgust” at the main character’s body.
The blowback to the movie, Dhont said, was “emotionally challenging.” He added that “now, if I made a film with a trans character as the lead, I would make it differently,” but declined to get into the specifics of what he would change. “I can’t go back in time,” he said.
Dhont said that his films thus far had been about the period in a person’s youth when they are “confronted with society for the first time” and “performing types of identities or stereotypes of identities.”
“When you’re young, you want to belong to a group, but there are people for whom that doesn’t work,” Dhont said. “My films are about showing the world from that perspective.”
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