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‘It’s more subversive to show tenderness between men than the hard sex or brutal sex we often see’

Zeno Graton’s new film, The Lost Boys, stars Julien De Saint Jean and Khalil Ben Gharbia as young men who meet in a youth detention centre

If you had to pick the acting arrival of the past 12 months, it would be tricky to choose between Julien De Saint Jean, the rough-boy love interest in Lie with Me, and Khalil Ben Gharbia, the garcon fatal at the bitter heart of Peter Von Kant, François Ozon’s gender-swapped Fassbinder reboot.

For Zeno Graton, the promising Belgian director who has cast both actors in his acclaimed debut, The Lost Boys, it’s both an impossible call and a fortuitous circumstance.

“When it came to the casting process it was important to have boys who had a take on masculinity that was a bit alternative,” says Graton. “They had to have a sense of emotional intelligence and understand the construct of masculinity. When Khalil arrived he told me about his heroes. They were David Bowie, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain, all gender nonconforming guys. On top of that fact, he’s a great actor and he’s very tender.

“Julien has a very different way of working. He went to drama school. He’s very technical. He read a sociological book that I mentioned during casting. He’s a very dedicated actor. It was fun to confront these two very different acting methods.”

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The Lost Boys concerns Joe (played by Ben Gharbia), who’s counting down the days until his release from a youth detention centre. When William (De Saint Jean) arrives, an entirely unexpected attraction develops between the boys. Joe subsequently finds himself torn between the freedom that awaits beyond the facility and his romantic relationship with William. It’s impossible not to think about the playwright and poet Jean Genet and Our Lady of the Flowers, his semi-autobiographical novel from 1943, with its marginalised characters and prison setting.

“I’ve been inspired by Jean Genet for a long time,” says Graton. “He’s basically my chosen father. I’ve read everything he wrote and was very inspired by his short film, Un Chant d’Amour, or Song of Love. It’s his only short film, and it’s very political, very subversive, very erotic. Even back then, in 1950, when he made the film, he had an unapologetic way of talking about queer love that takes away the question of inhibition and shame.

“I took that Jean Genet – his will to be out there and to portray characters that were very proud of who they were. This opens the gate to a lot of different conflicts that we don’t see often in queer drama, because queer drama is mainly focused on the overcoming of shame and inhibition. I also took his love for prison, his love for men in love in prison, his poetry and the romance. He portrays men who are very affectionate with each other. I think it is more subversive to show tenderness between men than the hard sex or brutal sex that we often see. That absence of shame allows my characters to be tender.”

In September Michael Caine became the latest actor to speak out against the use of intimacy co-ordinators on film sets. “Thank God I’m 90,” he said. “In my day you just did the love scene and got on with it without anyone interfering.” This also seems to be the prevailing view across the Channel from England: in April the French director Mia Hansen-Løve claimed that if she “was forced to have some kind of virtue police on set, I’d rather not film those scenes”; and when he was asked about intimacy co-ordinators, Gaspar Noé simply shrugged. “That doesn’t exist in France,” he said.

Graton disagrees. “We hired someone, and it was the best decision I made for this film. I think in the UK and the US it’s very common, but not at all in France and Belgium. I knew it existed, and I knew it was starting. Hiring a co-ordinator allowed the actors to feel safe, which was the main thing. The co-ordinator was also a choreographer, so she brought ideas that I would never have had. She was on set for three scenes. Every time, she made contact with the actors separately the day before, so we knew what they wanted and expected. During shooting I could ask her things that I would never dare to ask the actors. I just want to encourage every director to hire an intimacy co-ordinator, for these reasons. Not only to have someone who can take care of consent but also someone who brings a lot of ideas.”

Graton was born to a Jewish-Tunisian father and a Belgian mother. He can, he notes, pass as Belgian, but his north African origins tell in the writing of Joe’s character.

“I wanted to portray a queer Arab character that would be a leading role, not just a supporting exoticised or fetishised character,” he says. “These are the boxes that we are often put into. I wanted to reverse the narrative. I wanted to showcase someone who would be at ease with his sexuality. It’s a very racist cliche to always put our characters in these victimised boxes. I didn’t want to avoid the race aspect. He is trapped in a racist justice system. But I wanted to portray this in something other than dialogue. That’s why I asked Bachar Mar-Khalifé to do the music. I wanted to connect the queerness with Arabic sounds. I love the poet Rumi. I love Sufism. I love the idea that you can connect with divinity, with Allah, through the senses.”

Growing up, Graton had a cousin who was in a juvenile-detention facility not unlike the remote centre featured in the film. The director, who wrote the film with Clara Bourreau, extensively researched youth incarceration, collaborating with Belgium’s ministry of youth.

“I wanted to portray these facilities in the most authentic way as far as possible,” he says. “I got the authorisation from the minister to enter those facilities twice. Once, in the very early stages of the writing, I spent one month there. I had an apartment next to the facility. I’d spend the day there, just observing the process and routines. It was completely mesmerising, because I was watching educators who were trying 100 per cent to help but who were themselves imprisoned in a system that didn’t allow them to do their work. I’m talking about discrimination towards the schools, parents who abandon their kids to the system, the fact that they are very isolated, and judges who renew stays in a very arbitrary way. I could see that there have been reforms since Alan Clarke made Scum. It’s much closer to a weird boarding school than a borstal. But it still harms the kids.”

The director is not confident that the system he observed so closely can be successfully reformed. The writings of Michel Foucault, particularly the idea of prison as a medico-judicial remedy, which he expressed in his book Discipline and Punish, remained at the back of Graton’s mind.

“The big problem with these facilities is that they exist,” he says. “And that they are remote and that they have keys. I was following the thinking of Foucault on biopolitics of how we treat the marginalised, the sick people, even the people who go on vacation, because he wrote a lot about how we go from our office to the entrapment of the holiday camps. And the prisons and the hospitals and schools are really the same. So for me was more about the structural aspects. The metaphor of this prison for me is the metaphor of a society that is still kind of homophobic and putting walls between queer youth. It’s a panoptic, invisible eye watching through the window. You don’t need a Nurse Ratched character. The system is within us.”

The Lost Boys opens in cinemas on Friday, December 15th