In the opening shot of Lukas Dhont’s new film, Close, two 13-year-old boys run through a field of flowers with carefree abandon. The setting is not unlike the massive flower farm that Dhont, 31, grew up next to in his hometown of Dikkelvenne, in the Belgian province of East Flanders.
Dhont’s first passion was dance, and his approach to writing and directing films, he tells me, is akin to that of “a choreographer who focuses on intentions of movement, of ways of looking, of colors, of light.” In Close, which won the Grand Prix at last year’s Cannes Film Festival and is Belgium’s entry for this year’s Academy Awards, Dhont explores the physical and emotional dynamics of an intimate, nonsexual friendship between two teenage boys that unravels due to societal pressures.
Dhont drew inspiration for his second feature from a variety of sources, including Walt Whitman’s poem “We Two Boys Clinging Together” and the research of Dr. Niobe Way, a professor of developmental psychology at New York University, who conducted hundreds of interviews with American teenage boys for her 2013 book, Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection.
“What Way uncovered was that if we keep depriving young men when they are growing up of the love that they feel for each other, and also the idea of being loved,” Dhont says, “then we create this epidemic of loneliness that for so many of us means a disconnection not only from the other but on the inside.”
The disconnection in Close, which leads to the most tragic consequences, was informed by Dhont’s own alienating experience of growing up queer and fearing intimacy in the Flemish countryside. “When I write and direct I start from something personal,” he says, “something that is deeply felt by me. But along the way I try to leave the ‘me’ behind and look to phrase it in a way that can be universally experienced.”
“If we keep depriving young men … of the love that they feel for each other, and also the idea of being loved, then we create this epidemic of loneliness.”
Dhont’s debut film, Girl, which won the Caméra d’Or for best first film at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, was inspired by a teenage friendship the director had with a trans ballerina. The film was criticized by some trans and queer reviewers for its depiction of gender dysphoria and self-harm. But Dhont remains unusually sanguine about the experience, saying, “As a young filmmaker trying to create pieces, I think that dialogue is important and incredibly necessary in order to grow.”
Both Close and Girl feature magnetic performances from non-professional teenage actors, and the in-depth preparatory work that Dhont does with his performers has become a hallmark of his directing. “When we chose the boys for Close we rehearsed for six months,” he says. “Building those connections and that intimacy was incredibly important before we arrived on set.”
However, it looks like such compelling depictions of teenage strife will take a back seat for Dhont’s next film. “I think we will now tackle a different period in a human’s life,” he says. “I think we will step away for a moment from a younger perspective.”
Close, directed by Lukas Dhont, will hit theaters on January 27
Tobias Grey is a Gloucestershire, U.K.–based writer and critic, focused on art, film, and books