Lukas Dhont’s debut feature, Girl, was first much admired and then swiftly condemned. It’s the story of a 15-year-old trans female ballet dancer, Lara, following her coming of age as she trains in a rigorous dance school. At the same time, she is awaiting the hormone replacement therapy that can start when she turns 16, and then the sex reassignment surgery for which she longs. Lara becomes frustrated by her body and the time her transition is taking and, in a shocking final scene, mutilates herself with a pair of scissors, after having called an ambulance.
It’s based on the experiences of a trans dancer, Nora Monsecour, whom Dhont first approached when she was 15 and he was an 18-year-old film student. Initially, he wanted to make a documentary about her but they decided to turn her story into fiction. After an open, gender-neutral casting of 500 candidates, Victor Polster, a beautiful 14-year-old boy was given the part.
At Cannes in 2018, Girl won the Caméra d’Or Award for best first feature and the Queer Palm, then was selected as Belgium’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Oscar and bought by Netflix. But it soon attracted flak from critics who were trans. They argued the film was sadistic and dangerous and were angered by a trans story being told by a non-trans director using a non-trans actor. They criticised the way it seemed fixated on “genital aspects of transitioning”. In response, Monsecour firmly defended Girl: “My story is not a fantasy of the cis director. Lara’s story is my story.”
As the story of two 13-year-old cis boys, Close, Dhont’s second film, is not open to any such gender-based criticism – yet it has a similarly questionable dip into melodrama. The first half-hour is an idyll. Blond Léo (Eden Dambrine) and dark-haired Rémi (Gustav De Waele) are perfect friends, revelling in their summer holidays, cycling through fields of flowers, living in each other’s houses, often spending the nights together too, cuddling close, although there’s no suggestion that the relationship is sexual. Their families fully participate in this closeness, delighted to share their happiness.
Then it’s term-time and their intimacy is exposed to a more brutal context: the schoolyard. Girls giggle at them, asking them if they’re a couple. They’re just best friends, almost brothers, they say. But Léo, who has seemed the more fey of the two, is embarrassed and begins to pull away from Rémi, not waiting to cycle to school with him, choosing to take up with the jocks in the ice hockey team. Rémi is devastated and commits an act even more irrevocable than Lara’s self-harm. The scene in which Léo’s mother (Léa Drucker) has to let him know what has happened, more through her physical presence and facial expression than words, is extremely powerful and distressing. The remainder of the film plays out Léo’s attempts to come to terms with this event, drawn to Rémi’s mother (Émilie Dequenne) but unable to speak to her, committing himself instead to the thumpingly masculine exertions of the ice hockey team, armoured in padding and a face mask.
Close, like Girl, is filmed closely with an inquisitive handheld camera, right in the middle of things. Yet it is also highly stylised and choreographed, the contrast between recurrent bouts of violent exercise and bedroom intimacy establishing a similar rhythm to that of Girl. Dhont has elicited remarkable performances from these striking boys after six months of rehearsals, establishing relationships and gradually introducing the camera so they became accustomed to it – and they seem not to be acting towards it.
He was influenced by a 2013 book, Deep Secrets: Boys’ Friendships and the Crisis of Connection by the US psychologist Niobe Way, in which she interviewed 100 high-school boys and found they spoke freely of their love for their friends in early adolescence, but rejected such language a few years later, under pressure to “man up”. This can only have confirmed Dhont’s existing sense of coming of age as an expulsion from paradise. “A queer audience will watch this film and connect to a deep wound,” he says, recognising that the experience of heartbreak through friendship is universal, too.
Close, winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes, up for Best International Film at the Oscars in March, is immediately captivating, so different in its tenderness to Hollywood crassness. Dhont, now 31, is a great talent. Yet just like Girl (“My story does not include that final event,” Nora Monsecour specified), it deviates unnecessarily into extremity, as if lacking confidence the narrative will have sufficient force without such a turn. It will be good to see what Dhont does next.
“Close” is in cinemas now
This article appears in the 01 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Mission