DIR/WRI: Xavier Dolan • PRO: Xavier Dolan, Charles Gillibert, Nathanaël Karmitz • DOP: André Turpin • ED: Xavier Dolan • MUS: Gabriel Yared • CAST: Xavier Dolan, Pierre-Yves Cardinal, Lise Roy
Early reviews from Tom At The Farm suggest that the film marks Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan venturing into properly ‘genre’ territory for the first time. However, while the film does utilise – and subvert – the tropes of a standard thriller, it so constantly sidesteps convention and audience expectation that any formal generic classification proves woefully inadequate.
After retreating exclusively behind the camera for his last film – the epic transgender relationship study Laurence Anyways – Dolan opts to take the lead role of Tom here. The story, adapted from a play of the same name by Michel Marc Bouchard, has Tom travel to his lover Guillaume’s funeral somewhere in rural Quebec. It transpires that the deceased’s mother, Agathe (Lise Roy), had no idea her son was gay. Tom is told in no uncertain terms to keep the secret, well, secret by Guillaume’s violent, quite possibly unhinged brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal). Initially intending to leave immediately, Tom finds himself increasingly fascinated by Agathe and particularly Francis, and opts to stick around. But as the lies pile on top of each other, it’s uncertain if secrets can stay hidden.
Homosexuality has been a key theme of Dolan’s films to date, and it’s central to Tom at the Farm’s drama. Initially Francis seems like your standard bigot, disgusted at his brother’s sexuality and committed to keeping it secret at whatever cost (especially if that cost is some sort of serious assault). However, as the film progresses a sort of masochistic homoerotic tension begins to develop between Francis and Tom. It’s a strange sort of relationship to witness, and leads to scenes playing out in ways the audience is unlikely to expect or predict. At its best, the film manages to paint Francis as an angry, self-destructive enigma, and captures Tom’s journey of self-discovery, as well as his potentially dangerous curiosity about his dead boyfriend’s unstable brother. There’s a few welcome narrative curveballs thrown into the mix, such as an ever-escalating attempt to persuade Agathe that Guillaume actually had a girlfriend.
Unfortunately, all this can also stretch credibility. It’s hard to get a firm grasp on any of the characters, who seem borderline schizophrenic at times. Occasionally it can be quite potently ambiguous (details of the characters’ backstories, for example, are doled out in a nicely controlled fashion), but a lot of the time it can be pretty frustrating as these people act in illogical, maybe even contradictory ways without much coherent rhyme or reason. There’s lots of room here for viewers to read into subtleties and hints – there’s a purposeful lack of concrete answers – but it’s sometimes worth asking how effective that ambiguity is: the ending particularly will annoy the hell out of anyone seeking something more definitive. Although some of the themes are clearly very personal to Dolan, it’s a film that feels somewhat cold and clinical overall.
Dolan can’t resist filming this in an impressively vibrant way – significantly pared back from the proudly indulgent Laurence Anyways, but still immaculately composed. That includes the finest aerial shot of Canadian farmland you’re likely to see in the foreseeable future. While Dolan constantly sidesteps predictable drama, there are a number of traditionally ‘thriller’ scenes – a fight, a threat or a chase here and there. Interestingly, Dolan chooses to explicitly utilise the aesthetics of genre cinema for these moments. The aspect ratio dynamically narrows, the lighting becomes more explicitly stylised, and the soundtrack bursts to life with the sound of excited strings. It’s an interesting and largely effective directorial choice, although most notably serves to highlight how the narrative steadfastly refuses to conform to convention despite seemingly borrowing some familiar tools. That playful adaptation of genre norms is to be celebrated, although ultimately the film is a strange mix of curious experimentation and frustrating elusiveness.
Tom At The Farm is released on 4th April 2014