Lukas Dhont had a spectacular career launch when Girl, his directorial debut, premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard section in 2018 and went home with four awards: the Camera d’Or for best first feature, the FIPRESCI film critics honor, the Un Certain Regard best performance trophy for lead Victor Polster and the Queer Palm for best LGBTQ movie.

Based on a true story about a transgender ballet dancer, it sparked controversy with its casting of Polster, a cisgender male, but it was critically acclaimed and commercially successful. It sold worldwide, with Netflix buying it for the U.S.

Now, Dhont is back in Cannes with Close, which premieres in the festival’s competition. It’s a tale of two 13-year-old boys, Léo and Rémi, whose tight friendship is thrown into disarray with the onset of adolescence. The Match Factory is handling international sales.

In a wide-ranging interview with THR, the Belgian filmmaker talked about “second film syndrome,” how a chance encounter gave him one of his stars and why he always takes career advice from his mother.

What was your reaction when you heard Close was picked for the Cannes competition lineup?

When I was almost finished with the film and felt I wanted to share it with the world and with the Cannes Film Festival, I suddenly felt really insecure. But when I got the call that we were in competition, I started jumping up and down in this little Airbnb I had in Amsterdam. I called my mom immediately and shouted at her. I think she’s still deaf in one ear! I just feel incredibly lucky.

How difficult was it to follow up on the success of Girl?

It was really challenging. I wanted to find a story I could tell with the same passion and desire that I talked about with Girl. I went on YouTube to watch a lot of directors talk about the problems they had making their second film. That really helped. I had a few ideas on paper, but none clicked. I went back to my hometown and had a long walk with my mom. I said, “What am I going to do? What am I going to write?” She was very direct: “It’s clear, you should make films about things you feel closely connected to.” Of course, my mother is always right. I took a piece of paper and wrote down one word: friendship. From that word came the desire for me to talk about the close friendship between two 13-year-old boys.

As a kid, I often denied myself an intimate relationship with another boy, because I feared that relationship. I read research by an American psychologist who followed around 100 boys between the ages of 13 and 18. At 13, she saw how those boys describe their friendships as being incredibly important to them. Their friends were the people they trusted, who they shared their secrets with, who they loved. They weren’t afraid to express the love they felt for their friends. Then she re-interviewed them at 15, 16, 17 and 18. And with a lot of them, she saw how performance masculinity intervened. The intimacy those boys had with each other was interrupted. All of a sudden, the story of my very personal experience seemed to click into something much broader, much more universal. I understood I wanted to make a film about the impacts of friendship. I think a lot of time in film, we focus on romantic relationships, but for so many of us, friendships define who we are.

How did you cast your leads? Did you want to cast non-professionals?

I assumed with two 13-year-old leads, it would be difficult to find kids with acting experience. But something strange happened. I’d written the very first scenes of this film and was taking a train from Antwerp to Ghent. In the seat next to me was a young boy talking with his friends, you know, about life and such. Just looking at him, I felt this intuition that the person I was writing about was sitting there in front of me. So I asked him if he’d be interested in acting. He was very enthusiastic. When we started casting, we invited him and maybe 750 other boys. And he stayed as we went through the casting process. Every stage, he just impressed us more and more. He has this power of allowing us to see his vulnerability. The boy on the train, he’s called Eden Dambrine, we cast as Léo, the lead. 

For the other boy, we went to a lot of acting workshops in Belgium for youngsters, because I wanted to see how they worked in groups. And I discovered this boy who has an incredible face and incredible energy. He joined the casting process, and when we’d narrowed the selection to maybe 20 people, we started to combine them in pairs. And this combination — Eden with this boy [Gustav De Waele] was special. They challenged each other, but they were also incredibly kind to each other. You could see how they were helping each other out, discussing, working together. That was the power we wanted in the film, because we wanted the boys to share a bond of friendship and in the more emotional scenes to be able to lean on each other. 

What was the most challenging thing about making the movie?

Part of our country [Belgium] flooded that summer [in 2021]. This is a summer film, and we wanted the feeling of summer. And then half of our country was under water, it was raining a lot. Of course, surprises always come up, and you have to embrace those surprises. One of the strengths in the film, like with Girl, was we had professional actors [including Emilie Dequenne and Léa Drucker] working with the non-professionals. That’s always powerful because they play off one another; the beauty is seeing how non-professionals work. They give gifts to the professionals and vice versa.

Is there one scene that stood out to you?

Definitely. I can’t say too much without giving things away because it’s a key moment in the film. But it’s a scene on a bus. It was one of those scenes that you know you’ve written, but suddenly the actors make it come alive, they bring out the emotion in it and make it live in front of your eyes. Everyone on set was in tears.

Girl dealt with transformation and gender identity. Do you see a link between those themes and this film?

I think, in a way, Close is a continuation of the themes in Girl, but it’s also really a different film. It’s a continuation, but also a rupture. It’s true that identity is again a central theme. Girl really talked about gender identity and the relationship with the body. Here, the themes are much more about friendship, intimacy and responsibility.

There’s a lot more discussion these days about male identity, about male intimacy. Do you think things are different for boys growing up now than when you were 13?

I think that question really depends on where you ask it. There are differences, but those topics, those issues that were there when I was 13, they’re still there. We worked with our two boys, and we worked with groups of other kids, and I felt how difficult many of these topics were for them to discuss. I hope that we are in a positive evolution when we talk about masculinity, allowing fragility and vulnerability, allowing men to depend on each other. But I still get bombarded with examples from the other side. The two 13-year-old boys we worked with here are very open and able to express their love to each other. But, like in that study, I’m intrigued to see how they will talk and act when they’re 15 and 18. I hope they do still talk in the same loving way.

With Girl, you were criticized by some for casting a cis-male as a trans character. What did you take from that experience?

Putting Girl into the world was an incredible process of understanding and learning about different opinions, different visions. I found it an incredibly rich process for myself as a person and as a director. One of the bigger realizations was that, concerning LGBTQ topics or trans topics, there’s just so much to uncover, so much to learn, so much to see. Because these stories haven’t been given the platform or had the space to be explored and discovered.

Do you know what your next story will be?

I’m working on a French project that I’m slowly writing, which excites me. But I’m still putting so much energy into finishing Close that when we have our final day of mixing, it will be a big liberation. I may take some time off before going back to the other projects lying on the shelf.

And go for another walk with your mom.

Yes, exactly.

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