‘Close’ Director Lukas Dhont Hopes Oscar Nom Will Deepen Conversation About Masculinity and Mental Health

“Cinema offers the power of connection. Experiencing emotions is incredibly powerful when we do it together,” the 31-year-old Belgian director says

Lukas Dhont
Photographed by Lenka Ulrichova for TheWrap

Lukas Dhont was in the lobby of a Manhattan hotel on the morning that the Oscar nominations were announced. Being in a public place helped calm his nerves as he waited to find out if his gentle, observant movie “Close,” which has received acclaim since it won the runner-up Grand Jury Prize at last May’s Cannes Film Festival, would be nominated for Best International Film.

The news was very good. “I didn’t have a big night’s sleep, I must say,” the 31-year-old Belgian director told TheWrap. “It’s all a weird thing. You try to get as many people as you can to see your film, but then it’s also nerve-wracking, waiting to see if we got nominated. But from the moment I heard our film’s name, I jumped up and screamed a bit. I hope I didn’t scare anyone in the hotel.”

He added, “To get recognition to this extent, it’s an enormous gift that I don’t take lightly. I know how many films there are out there, this year and every year, that don’t have this privilege.”

“Close” is the eighth Belgian film nominated in the international category. It would be the first from Belgium to win. The story deals with the experience of a 13-year-old named Léo (first-time actor Eden Dambrine) who loses his best friend.

“It’s a film in which we confront the expectations assigned to so many of us as teenagers,” Dhont said. “It’s a film about friendship and masculinity. And mental health, too, and I feel like a conversation around that topic is a necessary one. So hopefully, with this nomination, that conversation can be even bigger now.”

Eden Dambrine (center) in “Close” (A24)

The film, which is distributed by A24, opens this weekend in select theaters. Dhont looks forward to the reaction of American audiences, and not just because one of his early inspirations for the script was the American professor Niobe Way and her book about adolescent boys and friendship, “Deep Secrets.”

“Hearing the audiences talk about their experience of the film is how I reconnect to why we made it in the first place,” Dhont said. “That has been a very energizing, powerful thing to meet all these people I have never met before. And how they re-live their own young friendships though the film. Or confront a sense of regret about their childhoods that they have carried with them but have never expressed.”

After the Oscar nominations announcement, following a brief celebration in the hotel lobby, Dhont also called his film’s young stars, Dambrine and Gustav De Waele, who were finishing up the school day back in Belgium.

“They were living that moment collectively with their classroom,” Dhont said. “I think all of those youngsters jumped up and cheered. So I was happy they could take my call, because this has been an emotional thing for them too. For these boys, who have given these amazing performances after having never acted before, it’s a life changing experience.”

Dhont intends to bring his cast along with him to the Academy Awards in March. “And that’s the thing. Now they also realize that they’ll be going to the Oscars. It starts to sink in. We’re are all really excited.”

Since premiering at Cannes last year, Dhont has also been able to meet other filmmakers along the busy awards campaign trail. It’s an expeirience he treasures.

There’s a true sense of camaraderie, because we’re all going through the same thing,” he said. “And of course, we were all campaigning to be nominated, but it’s also really about the human connections along the way. I’ve been able to meet the team who made who made ‘Argentina 1985’ the team who made ‘All Quiet on the Western Front.’ These are great, radical, very different films.”

Those two films, along with “EO” and “The Quiet Girl,” were also Oscar nominated. But Dhont stressed that several of the movies that touched him most deeply were ones that didn’t make the final five.

“Today I’m also thinking about Ali Abbasi, who made ‘Holy Spider,’ and Marie Kreutzer, who made ‘Corsage,’ and Park Chan-wook, who made ‘Decision to Leave,’ and Alice Diop, who made ‘Saint Omer,’” he raved. “These are some of the films that spoke to my heart and they have really, really impacted me this year.”

Dhont mentioned that he’s also a huge fan of Charlotte Wells’s “Aftersun,” which scored a Best Actor nomination for Paul Mescal. And he remembers his experience of seeing Ruben Östlund’s comedy “Triangle of Sadness,” the Cannes Palme d’Or champion and now Best Picture and Best Director nominee, in a crowded movie theater.

“When I saw ‘Triangle of Sadness’ in Ghent (Belgium), I was so happy I saw it in a full theater, feeling the huge waves of laughter and disgust in the audience. And feeling that shared experience of a piece. Whatever is it, whether it’s dance or opera of music or film, there’s a real power to seeing it together. Sometimes we go through the world watching our own little screens and separated from one another. We can forget how important connection is. It’s really important to be reminded of.”

In a more nuanced way than robust, rousing movies such as “Avatar” or “Top Gun,” the small-scale “Close” is also a film which benefits enormously from the moviegoing experience.

“I strongly believe in what the Greeks call catharsis,” Dhont said. “When I write, I always keep in mind this possibility of going through something collectively and how we can see the world and see ourselves see each other in a different way. Due to the pandemic, we all had to experience moments separately, especially movie-watching. And I think experiencing emotions of joy and laughter or profound sadness or grief, it’s incredibly powerful when we do it together. And cinema offers the power of that connection.”