Calling Lukas Dhont a provocateur doesn’t feel quite right. The young Belgian director’s movies are too earnest for that label, but both of them have polarized critics and audiences enough to give Dhont a bit of a reputation. His debut, 2018’s Girl, won multiple awards at the Cannes Film Festival but drew fierce criticism for its intense portrait of a transgender ballerina’s bodily transition. (On Netflix, a viewer-discretion warning precedes the movie.) Now, Dhont’s follow-up, Close, has generated rapturous responses, including Cannes’ coveted Grand Prix jury prize, and some skepticism too.
Close follows two 13-year-old best friends, Léo (Eden Dambrine) and Rémi (Gustav De Waele), as they leave behind the spoils of summer for a fresh school year. Classmates who observe the pair’s intimacy question whether they boys are gay, prompting a crisis within Léo. He pushes Rémi away, which results in devastating consequences. Dhont captures an extraordinary level of kinship between his two actors, both first-timers. The ravishing half hour that opens the movie then gives way to severe plot choices that have been called emotional but also manipulative.
Dhont, 31, says he designed both Girl and Close to prompt discussions. By that metric, he’s incredibly successful. Close, cowritten with previous collaborator Angelo Tijssens, will likely elicit more conversation as awards season continues, as it’s been short-listed for the Oscars’ international-feature-film category. Dhont talked to Vanity Fair about how the movie came together, the controversy surrounding Girl, and working to tackle ideas about masculinity in his work.
Vanity Fair: Close is your second go-round. What does it feel like this time?
Lukas Dhont: It’s incredibly rewarding to be able to travel around with this film to that degree. You never dare to expect it—that would be too dangerous. When you get to have a conversation around masculinity and intimacy that is so deeply personal, but also so deeply necessary for us all to have, it’s everything that I feel like I need. It’s being able to use an art form that is incredibly important to us, and also being able to have a conversation that I feel I wasn’t able to have for a long moment in my life. And now I’m able to have it on a very big scale.
You have the rare privilege of getting to work through things we deal with as adolescents. Both of your first two movies plug into that. After Girl came out, how quickly did you figure out what you wanted to make next?
I would love to say that I’m not the cliche of a second-time director who says it’s difficult, but it was really difficult in the beginning. I had to realize that the energy of making a second piece is very different from the energy of the first one. I also really had to leave behind Girl because that was a long moment in my life that I spent with that film. That film became a part of me. So starting over, finding a new desire, took some time.
Really, the point where I realized, Okay, this will be the new piece, is when I came upon this research by the New York psychologist Niobe Way, who followed the lives of 150 boys over five years. When she interviewed them at 13 and they talk about their friends, they express it like it’s love stories. They dare to use the word “love” about each other in the most tender, beautiful way. And then as she follows them, you read how these boys, as they grow older and as expectations of masculinity become stronger on them, completely disconnect from that language. I feel like we live in a society where masculinity and intimacy have been very difficult concepts to bring together. I feel like we tell men that the only place that they can find intimacy in this world is through sex and that expressing love and vulnerability towards another man seems to be something incredibly complex. We often get images of toxic behavior—of violence, of war—represented when it comes to masculinity, but we so rarely get to see an intimate, beautiful friendship where two boys lay in a bed together and just want to be as close as they possibly can.
Have you seen Little Men, Ira Sachs’ movie?
Oh yes. When I went looking for other examples, it was one of the only films where I feel like it was showing that sensibility, that sensuality. Of course, it’s also how the parents impact the relationships of their children. But it is such a rare example of that type of friendship. It’s a film that deeply impacted me when I saw it, and unfortunately it’s one of the really rare examples of onscreen intimacy between two boys.