Lukas Dhont Shares How Belgian Film ‘Close’ Explores the Importance of Connection

Belgium’s “Close” has been shortlisted for the international film Oscar; it’s a good bet for a nomination and should be considered in other categories such as writing and directing. It’s the second film from writer-director Lukas Dhont, and joins a group of European movies that seem so original, the audience understands childhood in a new light — yet the films are so insightful and personal, the makers seem to have tapped into our own memories. 

The film joins such European-childhood classics as “Forbidden Games,” “The 400 Blows,” “The Spirit of the Beehive,” “Fanny and Alexander,” “Au Revoir, Les Enfants” and “Rosetta,” to name a few. 

“Close” centers on the friendship of two boys, played by Eden Dambrine and Gustav De Waele. Their dynamics change when they shift to a middle school, and they try to understand their own feelings in new surroundings.

“It’s a film about the deep importance of staying connected to others and to ourselves,” says Dhont. “Unfortunately, we live in a culture that disconnects people, and in particular young men, from that emotional vocabulary. Our desire is to speak of the pressures of masculinity and the daily news confronts us with the brutality done by men to men. It’s important to talk about what we deprive these men of, from an early age, and that’s a true sense of connection. It feels urgent to talk about that other way of thinking: vulnerability and tenderness.” 

Dhont says casting is especially tricky with young actors. “We were looking for people in that very short brink of time between childhood and puberty. When you’re looking for young people, you’re probably looking at people who have never acted before.”

In a traditional audition, an actor might get 20 minutes, but youngsters, he says, “are often overwhelmed and they cannot show you what they could do.” So he worked with 580 semi-finalists in groups.

Dambrine and De Waele wound up in the same group and “They gravitated towards each other; there was a chemistry. They read the script, because it was important to me that it was not only US choosing them but also that THEY wanted to choose us. At that age, they’re so intelligent and so much in touch with the heart. I think when we hit puberty, we start to perform a little.” During filming, both actors were 13: “We were with them at the moment they transformed from children to teenagers.”

There are sequences of Leo (Dambrine) with his hockey team, so cinematographer Frank van den Eeden put on skates to follow the teenagers’ moves. The DP and Dhont built a framework along with editor Alain Dessauvage, who gives the writer-director feedback on every stage of filming.

“Everything is choreographed and framed. But when we arrive on set, the energy of the young people is important. I don’t want to take away their authenticity and freedom. When I feel the energy of the young cast needs to go somewhere, we will always prioritize that over what we had.”

Partway through the film, Leo (Dambrine) returns from a school outing and has an upsetting conversation with his mother on the school bus. 

Shooting on the bus was difficult for the crew: “Everybody was hidden behind seats and it’s an emotional moment with a lot of things going on; you have all these parents gathering around the bus, all the kids leaving the bus and it was so challenging. Lea Drucker gives an amazing performance as Leo’s mother. I looked at my sound team, and I could see it was hard for them to not get carried away by the emotions.” 

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