It’s hard to describe 25 year old Cannes Grand Jury Prize winner Xavier Dolan as anything but a wunderkind, even if you dislike his work. The rate of output, for one, is impressive, but the products themselves are astonishing. But what happens when an art house enfant terrible steps away from his comfort zone to deliver a straight (or, rather, queer) psychological thriller? Certainly one of the most outstanding, heart racing experiences I’ve had at the theater in ages.
Traveling from Montreal, the eponymous Tom arrives at the homestead of his late lover’s family for the funeral. While there, he learns that his romance with Guillaume was kept a secret from them and it soon becomes apparent that all is not well at home.
To say I am familiar with the work of Xavier Dolan would be an understatement. I imagine several would be willing to testify in a court of law that I talk too much about the director, to the point that the reason said witnesses were testifying would be to ban me from speaking his name again. Dolan’s first effort I Killed My Mother, while flawed, is both an incredibly impressive debut from the then 18 year old director and a supremely personal work, not only for Dolan, but for me. His second film, Heartbeats, often gets flak for being indulgent and immature, but, being my personal favorite, its tale of an unofficial ménage a trois between three hip folks (think hipster Jules and Jim by way of Wong Kar-Wai) seems to justify its flamboyant style. His third film, Laurence Anyways, won the Queer Palme at Cannes, continuing to solidify his talents as a director, and furthermore show how much he grew in a compact amount of time.
Dolan, with Tom at the Farm,based on the play of the same name by Michel Marc Bouchard, continues to prove his worth in film. It’s astonishingly confident not because of his often hyper stylistic proclivities but precisely because he backs away from those, what some would call, crutches. His first three films are often, none too kindly, marked by their “film school aesthetic”, with their lavish color palettes, ostensibly incongruous insert shots and montages, the frequent use of slow motion. Yet, Tom at the Farm works as a departure from his own style, however derivative it may seem. Instead, he uses it as a way to explore both his own versatility as a filmmaker by playing a fairly straight genre game as well as the complexities of queer secrecy and national homophobia.
The word “Hitchcockian” is often misused and applied to pretty much any suspense thriller that, for lack of a better phrasing, has suspense. Rarely is the word used to define what Hitchcock actually accomplished with his suspense or how he accomplished his suspense: by carefully mounting it, gradually raising the stakes, and tightening the tension until it is ready to snap. Even for a Dolan fan like myself, Tom at the Farm is remarkable for being able to, in my opinion, truly be able to capture what that word means and to apply it in an interesting way. It is fascinating to see someone who seems so cozy in his art house niche, using lurid colors and artistically driven techniques essentially leave behind that style in order to use other elements of film to elevate tension.
Tom (Dolan) arrives at the farm and it’s desolate. It’s as empty as his heart is at the present, the drive down from Montreal to the Middle of Nowhere, America having been this quietly brutal experience for him as he is left with his own thoughts about his recently dead lover, Guy. The family reveals itself as Guy’s mother, Agathe (Lise Roy, stunning in her creepiness), and, previously unknown to him, Guy’s brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal). Their presence, though, does not change how lost and dark the farm feels. The bleakness of the palette, almost always stormy, the wheat fields withering away. Dolan chooses to shoot many conversations at the dinner table from afar, taking advantage of how unused the house feels. It’s unpleasant. That landscape, though, seems to be an intentional subversion of the iconic Middle America that is often the subject of postcards and photographs. This farm is dank and something rotten lies within it.
Though Dolan originally had planned to not use music in the film, part of Tom’s success as a thriller owes a bit to composer Gabriel Yared, who, like Dolan, gives the impression that he takes his cues for setting up tension and tightening it from classic thrillers, not limited to Hitchcock. The music is like dragging a knife across one’s back, waiting for it to make the cut. Yared’s ear for anxiety paired with Dolan’s eye for anxiety makes one’s blood run cold.
Although Dolan, as aforementioned, seems to pull from conventional ideas on how to make a thriller, and in some ways, his style seems nearly classical (in a European sense), but every so often he asserts his power as a filmmaker but ever so slightly subverting the expectation. When Tom is unexpectedly confronted by Francis in the bathroom at the funeral, rather than go for a traditional jump scape (shot/reverse shot of Tom opening door to reveal Francis), he approaches the scene from a medium shot, preemptively revealing Francis, showing Francis push Tom into the stall, and holding it, hiding what’s going on. It becomes more and more apparent that this kid knows what he’s doing in how to make a thriller. It feels, thus, incredibly impressive that he is able to create claustrophobia in unusual ways (he plays with aspect ratio again here, as he does in Laurence Anyways and Mommy), through atmosphere and occasionally space and mise-en-scene without undercutting emotion or payoff.
Much of the weight is on Dolan, as he frames the film around Tom’s face. Initially a questionable decision, as one does not necessarily need to see close-ups for a majority of a film to understand it is from that character’s perspective, but it ends up being a wise move. Because Tom as a character is so complex, it matters more that the audience is able to read every emotion on his face, from quick smirks to the anguish of loss. His normally perfectly coiffed hair (it’s like Quebecois David Lynch) is in a faded yellow mop, not coincidentally the same color as the dying wheat. Crucial to Tom’s character is his fragility masked by strength. It is exactly that delicate vulnerability which makes the uncomfortable apprehension in the film so real.
Which makes reading the film being about loss and grief so interesting: the death of a loved one causes you to feel lost, like you yourself are in purgatory. It becomes Hellish. Yet, even Tom admits to himself at the beginning of the film, the next step is replacement.
That element of filling the void, thus, brings the audience to an extremely fractured dynamic between Tom and Francis. Working on two levels, despite Francis’s hostility, there’s a bizarre homoerotic/homophobic tension between the two. Francis, with his neat, attractive scruff and impressive arms (he runs the farm) seems offset by the aggression and violence. Yet there is an allure there, for both of them. Tom, in comparison, does not seem feminine per se, but at first just not overtly masculine. Tom is replacing Guy as a lover. Francis is replacing Guy as a brother. Yet, though the two seem inherently incompatible, the magnetism to their dynamic often manifests itself as nearly a sadomasochistic relationship, in a far more literal way than sexually. Francis causes physical harm to Tom, yet Tom stays, almost unable to leave. Francis continually utilizes Tom as a farm hand. He dances with Tom, revealing secrets about their mother. The complications of this relationship is epitomized in the scintillating tango, fraught with homoeroticism and, simultaneously, ambivalence. For both of them, the other may be the last remnant of their lives with Guy.
Yet the role he is required to play in the house gives way to the film’s most important commentary: as Kristen Sales put it (I’m paraphrasing here), America as the homophobic older brother. Francis advises Tom to tell the mother that Guy had a girlfriend named Sarah (“Oh, I wish you could meet my girlfriend, my girlfriend who lives in Canada…”). In that, Tom must pretend to be “the friend”, essentially jump back into the closet should he be beaten up by Francis. Dolan dares make a statement about the United States, which is intriguing, positing small town America as, essentially, intolerant. With some Freudian ideas at work, the idea seems to be that the family ostensibly welcomes Tom with open arms, but were they to know his true connection to Guy, he would be out the front door immediately. It’s the impression of tolerance and acceptance that only is a facade for judgment and hate which acts the primary target for Dolan. It isn’t even that the homophobia is overt; on the contrary, aside from Francis’s hostility, it’s insidious.
At first, it was hard for me to discern that it was indeed the United States that the film took place, my logic being that “Dolan speaks English, so why not have his case speak English?” (Then I realized, “Oh, people have done this before.”) The film progresses at a careful pace, and Dolan drops hints of where the film takes place little by little with iconic signifiers (car posters, dialogue reminiscent of rednecks, a bar’s neon signage). The portrait Dolan paints isn’t a pretty one.
Solidified by the inclusion of “Going to a Town” by Rufus Wainwright (who is also Canadian and queer) over the credits, Tom at the Farm is nearly like Xavier Dolan’s Dogville, with its damning statement about intolerance under the guise of small town acceptance. Another leap in talent, the young director uses his distance from indulgent style to prove his versatility, allowing the film to be at once unsettlingly complex and nuance and straightforwardly suspenseful. Even with my high expectations and incredibly high regard for his previous work, Tom at the Farm is a sucker punch to the gut, a film that left me shaking as I left the theater. Working on becoming a trailblazer, Dolan stands back and looks at a town that has already burnt down.