On a chilly winter evening in February, the 31-year-old Belgian filmmaker Lukas Dhont found himself at the Griffith Observatory, on a field trip of sorts with his two teenage actors Eden Dambrine and Gustav de Waele. It was the group’s third week in Los Angeles, where they’d been promoting Dhont’s film Close, a coming-of-age drama about adolescent loneliness and burgeoning masculinity that’s nominated for the Best International Feature Oscar. They used a rare break in the schedule to visit one of LA’s moodiest, most cinematic landmarks, one that’s been immortalized as a site of angst-on-celluloid dating all the way back to Rebel Without a Cause.
High above the city, Dhont watched his two leads take the moment in with genuine awe and excitement. “You know, the amazing thing with this journey is that I get to spend it with a 14 and a 16 year old who are in the States for the first time,” Dhont says. “Through their eyes, I’m understanding the absurdity of it all, and just really living in the moment.” (During a screening of the film at an AMC theater, Dhont and the boys found the poster of their film, featuring the two teenagers in an embrace, hanging beside the poster for Titanic’s rerelease, featuring Jack and Rose in similar repose. The teenagers, true to form, gamely posed for a winking recreation.)
“[Awards campaigns], like many competitions in life, sort of [has] set rules that seem to be about a destination,” Dhont tells me. “It’s so easy to forget about the journey. As an adult moving through life, sometimes you are so focused on getting somewhere. With teenagers, it is absolutely the opposite. They’re like, ‘Ooh, a palm tree. Ooh, great chocolate milk.’”
Close (now available to rent online) tells the story of Léo and Rémi, two 13-year-old boys whose close friendship encounters a society suspicious of male intimacy. Those suspicions eventually chip away at the pair’s bond and the film shows the ultimately devastating effects of those gender expectations. Dhont renders an almost anthropological study of masculinity in Close, making a case for male intimacy as something instinctive and innate, before social conditioning determines it irregular and distrustful.
“You will never hear me use the term toxic masculinity,” Dhont tells me. “I do not believe [toxic behavior] is necessarily masculine… When you listen to young boys, they will tell you just how much they long for vulnerability, for nurturing, for connectedness. Too often, we depict them as the opposite.”
Dhont made Close with his brother Michiel as one of the producers. “I am gay [too],” Michiel, who’s two years younger than Lukas, tells me. In a way, Close is also Michiel’s story. “Around me, other male friends or even girls, they didn’t quite understand what we were going through… During that time, [my male friends] pushed away so strongly at that idea, that I was quite alone in that. I think when Lukas and I really came together, we could share those emotions [with each other].”
At just 31, Dhont, who is gay, has established himself as the prince of queer coming-of-age cinema. In 2018, his debut film Girl, an intense—and intensely controversial—drama about a trans girl auditioning for ballet school, won multiple prizes at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for a Golden Globe. And he’s gone even further with Close, sharing the Grand Prix with Claire Denis at Cannes, garnering rapturous reviews and nabbing an Oscar nod—a major achievement given that the Academy has rarely treated coming-of-age films worthy of consideration.
Close is a story that Dhont has lived himself, growing up as a teenager in Ghent, Belgium. “I was considered someone very effeminate with [these mannerisms],” he says of his teenage years, “from my voice to my way of walking, talking. Unfortunately, at the time, I didn’t really have the sort of courage to say whatever. I was this young person who wanted to belong to a group rather than to myself.” Dhont recently told the New York Times that he had a similar falling out with a close childhood friend. “That tenderness started to become looked at through the lens of sexuality,” he said.
Around the same age as the boys in Close, Dhont became the subject of mockery at his school. At a weeklong camp at the end of junior high, students were invited to each do a performance for their peers. Dhont chose to do a dance solo to “Fighter,” the 2003 Christina Aguilera hit. “I even had this line around my lips [that I drew] with a pencil,” Dhont says. The response was swift and merciless. “If I think back on it, I’m just like, ‘Ah, that kid, protect him at all costs,’” he says.
Aguilera’s music was one of the things the pre-teen Dhont found refuge in. Talking about songs like “Fighter” and “Beautiful,” Aguilera’s seminal self-empowerment ballad, he says: “[Those songs are] about a sort of ownership of who you are, and of your strength, and of a beauty that doesn’t need to be the standard one or isn’t decided for us,” he says. “It was about finding a sort of inner voice.”
That moment, as traumatic as it had been, did inadvertently lead to Dhont finding his voice. After the response to his performance, Dhont ran to the bathroom to hide. “I was deeply ashamed,” he says. “[But] there was this one teacher who came after me, and I will never forget. She said to me, ‘One day, you’ll be able to do something with this.’”
“I think that’s where this film grew from,” he says now.
While his work as a filmmaker has so far focused on the queer coming-of-age experience, Dhont spent most of his own adolescence trying to fit in and actively avoiding entertainment by and about queer people. “I was so preoccupied with being this mime artist, who wanted to copy the boys around me, to be more like them… I didn’t go looking for those stories, where maybe I would’ve recognized myself more on a screen.” (Now, he’s a big Heartstopper fan. “I cried my eyes out [watching it],” he says of the queer Netflix coming-of-age series. “I’m just like, ‘I wish I had that when I was young’… I am deeply moved by it.)
When he was 15, Dhont found himself in a cinema with his whole class, watching Brokeback Mountain. The film helped him locate his own sexuality. “It was a very, very physical experience for me, because I was in the dark watching something on a screen that I felt incredibly connected to—a desire—and I felt seen,” he says. “Yet I knew that when the lights went on, I couldn’t in any way communicate [that]… But in a sense, I did feel closer to myself, maybe closer to myself than I had felt in a very long time.”
Dhont entered film school at 18, still in the closet in more ways than one. “Not only about my sexuality,” he says, “I was just also not myself. I think I had created this armor to protect me. One of my teachers said, ‘You don’t seem to have a personality.’ She was so right. I had become this collage of other people’s personalities.”
He found the beginnings of his own identity when he watched Belgian filmmaker Chantal Akerman’s Jeanne Dielman, 23 Commerce Quay, 1080 Brussels for class. “It was unlike anything I had ever seen before,” he says of the film (recently proclaimed the greatest of all-time by Sight and Sound), “It was this woman in a kitchen making a meatloaf. I just realized, ‘This film just made me see the assigned roles and given spaces and expectations that are put upon a body in this society that we live in. ’I was also someone who felt that those expectations had become this weight.”
From there, Dhont jumped into the work of queer filmmakers like Céline Sciamma, Xavier Dolan, and Pedro Almodóvar. “It was a flood of things that came over me,” he says. “I think all those pieces made me take my armor off, made me understand possibility.”
With Close, Dhont is helping do that for a new generation of queer viewers. In a few short years, the filmmaker has created a young but potent body of work that strives to investigate the gender expectations people are born into. And it seems like he makes the films as much for them as he does for his teenage self, the Lukas Dhont who danced to a pop song in front of his whole class and was crucified for it.
“I don’t believe people need to suffer in order to speak,” Dhont says, “but I do think that a lot of artists are people who feel excluded, feel like outsiders, feel like the world is this place they do not always easily connect with. I kind of sometimes feel like an outsider.”