Lukas Dhont: ”We grow up in a society that tries to point out people belong to some particular boxes already decided by the body we are born in.”
After winning no less than 4 Cannes awards in 2018 with Girl – including the Camera d’Or for Best Debut at only 26 years old – the Belgian director Lukas Dhont comes back this year with Close – a story of friendship between two 13 year old boys. A film that won the Grand Prix at Cannes this May and that can be seen these days during the 13th edition of Les Films de Cannes a Bucarest.
I remember getting out of Elvire Popesco Cinema in Bucharest four years ago, after the screening of Girl, being struck by the sensitivity of the story and the impact it had on me. So when I heard Close is playing at Cannes right after my departure from the festival, I felt quite sad that I won’t be able to see Dhont’s second feature on a big screen. The opportunity came again from our friends at Les Films de Cannes a Bucarest, alongside an interview with the director, now a 31 year old man, and a very candid and introspective human being. Even though our time together was short, we talked about both of his films, about adolescence and friendships. Discover more in the interview below.
Lukas, why do you think people have prejudices about everything that doesn’t fit their normal?
Well, because I think that we are taught to fear rather than taught to love one another – that would be the more general and poetic answer to the question. But I also think we grow up in a society that tries to point out that we are different and that people belong to some particular boxes already decided by the body we are born in. So when we come together on a playground which is like a microcosmos of a rather vertical society, we are confronted for the first time with all these differences and that can be a very interesting moment – some embrace the otherness, but it can also be really scary because of what we are taught to believe. Sometimes we even fear the otherness inside of us.
If there’s one thing to pick, what would you like the most to change in the world?
Wow, that’s a deep question. I would start with something that I struggled with quite a lot – I would like to think that through our work we deconstruct the codes and the notions that are built up around the gender that we’re born with and everything that is linked to it within our society. I was a young boy that struggled a lot with the division between boys and girls and really felt like I fell in the gap and didn’t know how to juggle with that. Through my work, I try to address these stereotypes, so apart from many other answers I could give, it’s the freedom of expression and this idea of liberty in living an authentic and unapologetic life.
And you’re doing a great job in this regard, I really liked Girl. It’s one of those films that really left a mark on me, I remember entire scenes like I saw it a few weeks ago. Would you say it changed something for the better within the bigger picture?
The thing with Girl is that it started from a very important place for me and it was then that I realized that something you do could really have an impact. I knew that cinema could do that, I’ve seen the effect it has on my mother. Girl was the first time I put something out in the world and witnessed how it resonates. I had the chance to understand from various people how dear it became to them, which makes me very proud. What we did with both films is we chose these very specific characters and used the elements at the center of their struggle to build a bridge to an audience that’s different from them. I think the complicated relationship we have with our bodies is one that we all know, whether we are a man of 80 years old, or a young girl, growing up – we all know that the body can be a harbor, but also a source of conflict. Trying to build a bridge and fill a gap that people might think they have between them and someone that’s very different from them (identity-wise), is our way to try to find common ground.
You were 26 when Girl won 4 awards at Cannes, which makes you one of the youngest directors to achieve this recognition. Did you feel any pressure when you were writing, then directing Close?
I think Close was a very different writing process for me, maybe because the idea for Girl had been with me since I was 18, so in many ways I had 6 years to think about it. And it was my first film and you know too little. With Close it was my second time so I knew more, I was more conscious while writing, thinking of the outside world as well. But even so, I had days when the voices in my head – that of doubt and insecurity – would come and sweep away all my creativity.
I was much more insecure writing Close, but making a second film is special because you start noticing the patterns of your writing, of your behavior and you learn about yourself and what is important to you and what’s not.
Tell me what was the most challenging part for you while working at it.
If I look at the three most important parts of a film – the writing, the shoot and the editing, I think the most difficult one is the writing. It’s when I try to find a very specific expression of what I want to say and I spend a lot of time trying to do that, to push the boundaries of my own imagination and limitations. I take a year and a half or two years of writing and I find it very difficult sometimes to separate the fiction from reality; I spend most of my days writing fiction but then I also have a personal life where I try not to think about the fiction and be present and what I find difficult is leaving the fiction in my office where it can exists and grow and leaving the characters I imagine behind. While I am writing I’m also thinking about directing. I write hundreds of versions of the same scene, so during the shooting, when something doesn’t go as planned, I can go back to other versions of that scene. So the writing is a very essential part, it’s about a way of looking – how do you show an audience what you want to speak about, how will I portray my characters? It’s here where the puzzle is solved.
And this gets us to the casting. I was struck by Victor Polster in Girl, his performance was just speechless. His Cannes award was much-deserved. And then, watching Close, I was once again impressed with the actors, you seem to have such a good flair for finding them and they’re always fresh faces. Can you tell me a bit about your casting process, if there is one?
I don’t know how, it’s just really fun to work with and give space to young talented people and there are many. It comes quite naturally for me. With Eden [n. Dambrine] from Close it’s quite a peculiar story – I found him on a train that I took from Antwerp to Ghent. All of a sudden I look next to me and there’s this young boy who is clearly expressing to his friends everything that goes on inside of him. I was listening to music, so I didn’t hear what he was saying, but just seeing his face, I was struck by it. I went up to him, I knew I would have regretted it if I didn’t and asked him if he wanted to do a casting for a film and so he did. Afterwards we went to all the schools in Brussels and all the theater classes really looking for youngsters. We organized full days of casting with around 20 kids at a time, so we spent quite a lot of time with them – letting them play, giving them some exercises and you get to see them grow as actors, but also tell a lot about them just by observing them in a group. With Gustav [n. de Waele] it was special because immediately they gravitated towards each other, the connection between them was visible from early on so we invited them to read the script together, talk about friendship – as they were at the age when friendship can change – and masculinity. So we spent a lot of time talking and a few months before the shoot we spent some days together, made pancakes and went walking by the sea. This is when the relationship at the core of the film was created and also when they gain the confidence that they know what the film is about. And from there onwards it was about guiding them as best as I could on set, giving them direction so they can understand better, change tonalities but yeah, they’re two very talented boys.
Both your films cover the period of adolescence in one’s life. I’m curious how you were as a teenager, how did you feel about yourself and your friends surrounding you?
I was a teenager that escaped very much in creativity. I used cinema very early on as a way to disappear in the dark theater watching other realities and worlds. It was such a nice escape. I was a young person who struggled with expectations, rather than being authentically myself. I used to consider myself an actor, I wanted to copy the behavior of others more than creating my own ways of expressing.
I actually think from a very early age I started becoming a director only by observing and listening to anyone around me so carefully that when I started writing, I knew how to do it because I knew how to think like others.
It sounds like you were born to do filmmaking, discovering cinema so early on and even now you’re so young and doing some pretty amazing films.
It’s very nice of you to say that. I do feel sometimes like it’s a mission, making films. But you know, I wanted to become a dancer before all of this.
Me too. And now I’m running a film magazine.
I felt the story is presented with such sensibility and in a very candid and balanced manner, until the moment when everything collapses. Why did you feel the need for that turning of events?
From a very early age, we learn young boys to take distance one from another, because we learn that being close to each other is something that becomes sexual, it’s what society teaches us and I think that when you listen to these boys at the age of 13, their vocabulary is beautiful, filled with emotion and tenderness. They use the term „love” quite often and then, when they grow up, we see how vocabulary disappears, they lose connection with each other, the world and themselves. They’re not able to communicate what they’re feeling anymore. So it’s not only about losing connection to one another, but also to yourself. In a world that can be so brutal, when we are confronted with the violence that we do to others (like fighting a war), I think it’s important what happens when that violence turns inwards. So it’s not only about the flowers and light, but also about the shadows and darkness of life.
I know from an interview you gave to Variety during Cannes that you lost some friends in your teenage years. Have any of them come back to you after watching this film?
There are also the conversations around the film and many of them probably read about it, as it is not out yet in Belgium. But yes, it’s a film I dedicate to the friends I have and the ones I lost. Indirectly I spoke with some of them and some have reached out – maybe because at the time I wasn’t able to articulate the things that I have now expressed through the film; and it maybe speaks to them now and they understand things better. That is the personal beauty but there’s also the beauty of the film – the fragility of friendship. It reminds us to stay in touch with those that are important to us. Maybe reconnect to those we feel like reconnecting to, the film does create that feeling.
(Banner foto: courtesy of Cannes Films Festival)
Lukas Dhont / Angelo Tijssens
Eden Dambrine, Gustav de Waele, Emilie Dequenne
Belgiu, Netherlands, France
The intense friendship between two thirteen-year old boys Leo and Remi suddenly gets disrupted. Struggling to understand what has happened, Léo approaches Sophie, Rémi\'s mother. \"Close\" is a film about friendship and responsibility.