The 95th Academy Awards® — scheduled for March 12 — feature many films with queer themes, such as “Tar,” “Everything Everywhere All At Once” and “The Whale.” Directed by out director Lukas Dhont, “Close” is also nominated for a Best International Feature Oscar®. While it’s not the favorite — “All Quiet on the Western Front” has that distinction — it’s certainly a remarkably moving motion picture worthy of the award.
In Dhont’s film, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Leo (Eden Dambrine) and his best friend Remi (Gustav De Waele) are 13-year-olds who are almost inseparable. The two share sleepovers and come to school together. When they start getting bullied by classmates, though, Leo pulls away from the friendship.
When he started writing the film four years ago, Dhont wanted to look at masculinity and deal with the realization that for a long time, society has been pointing a camera more at men fighting each other than holding on to one another. A friend of his asked if he had read Niobe Way’s book “Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection,” in which the author spent five years with 150 boys from the ages of 13 to 18.
“At the age of 13 she asked these boys to talk about their male friendships,” Dhont said. “At this age, these boys talk about each other in the most loving, tender, careful way. They say they would go crazy without each other. But from the ages 16 to 18, she asked them the same questions, and many of them start to distance themselves from that language of the heart. They start to understand that that connection is not something validated in this world.”
The director deeply connected to these boys, and it was at this age that he started to push away and be pushed away.
“I always thought it was relevant to my queer experience, but [now] I think it was more about my gender and being a young man growing up,” he said. “[Ours] is a culture and society where it’s dominance based, where these young people perform something they are not rather than be who they really are. This realization made me decide to talk about these friendships and the loss of them.”
The bond between Leo and Remi is initially very close and everyone — including their parents — is all right with it.
“I think it is about that moment in time when love doesn’t have to have a name, when it is still so free, and it can exist in such a pure, beautiful form,” Dhont said. “I think when the film starts it’s in the Garden of Eden of childhood — with this intimacy and tenderness. There is a moment in time when that love is automatically sexualized or labeled, especially for young men. I think what exists between these two boys is the most powerful, deep, true connection we can share in the world. We often deprive ourselves and others so much of love, and I wanted to remind us of the beauty of love in the world.”
Dhont tries in his writing to start from a personal place and make sure that the phrasing is as universal as possible.
“Heartbreak and friendship and regret and grief — we have all felt those to some extent,” he said. “We are all connected because of those things. I like to look for what connects us rather than what sets us apart.”
He feels queer audiences can especially relate to these characters.
“A queer audience has pushed away and been pushed away and has felt shame and fear in a very deep way,” he said. “I think there is a collective catharsis. This film connects us to a wound we might have had from childhood that we have not confronted and carried around with is. We also see this society, this culture, too often shows itself as homophobic and deeply fearful of what is other, especially femininity. I think it is a film that is incredibly vital and important.”
The ensemble is extraordinary, but Dambrine carries much of the heavy lifting. Dhont went to all schools in Brussels to scout as many young people as he could and met many of talented kids. Once he saw Dambrine, he knew he had his Leo.
“All of a sudden, I see the young Eden next to me — he was12 at the time — and that moment, I realized this young angel has something special, something in his eyes that is deep and complex,” he said.
Dambrine met De Waele afterward and there was an instant chemistry.
Dhont’s first film, “Girl,” made a splashy debut at the Cannes Film Festival, winning the Camera d’Or in 2018 and becoming Belgium’s Oscar® submission for that year. Yet many LGBTQ activists were upset about the film’s closing scene of violence and a cis man taking on the role of a trans individual. Dhont learned much from that experience.
“When we put the film in the world, there was a beautiful discussion with different perspectives and that is why [we do this],” he said. “You learn from listening to each other.”
The director was in New York earlier this year when he found out “Close” was nominated and the young actors were also watching the announcement in Belgium in their classroom.
“I called all my producers and team,” Dhont said. “I have been dreaming about the Oscars® since I was 12.”
“Close” is now playing in area theaters.