Wunderkind Xavier Dolan never seems to make it to the AFI festival because he’s always off shooting his next movie (four movies by the age of 24 and Cannes prizes galore). He was in production on this one when last year’s Laurence Anyways screened, a continuation and expansion of the high-pitched emotional drama of his first two films. Whether these were conceived as a triptych or not, Dolan switches tack for his fourth, adapting a play by Michel Marc Bouchard, and serves up a high-pitched psychological thriller that frequently borders on Grand Guignol.
In Tom at the Farm Xavier Dolan himself plays Tom, with a mop of sloppy dyed blond hair, a dusting of stubble, and a chunky biker jacket. He is marked out as an urban creature, arriving at a remote farm, where the script will convey with neat economy that he is there for the funeral of his dead lover, whose mother did not know her son was gay, and whose brother is a (suspiciously) vehement homophobe. Tom’s sympathy for the mother, and the brother’s insistence that he consolidate the charade of the dead man’s straightness, are initially what conspire to make Tom stick around.
Less elegant than the exposition, however, is the insistently ominous music that accompanies Tom’s arrival, wandering around the empty (but otherwise entirely unsinister) farm buildings. Gabriel Yared does a good Bernard Herrmann pastiche, later explicitly evoking themes from Psycho and Vertigo amongst others, and this is not the only hint of Hitchcock (there’s even a cornfield chase). The jolt of incongruity when this music first strikes up is symptomatic of the tone – or rather, lack of even tone – that Dolan pursues.
One has to swallow not one but two complete motivational volte-faces on Tom’s part, and an almost comic-book bogeyman in the form of brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), his face conspicuously obscured until a shock reveal (given the shadow of Hitchcock, guess where). And simply given the isolated rural setting, there has to be some ghastly secret connected to the family: when revealed it’s both more banal in its cause and more grotesque in execution than one could have imagined. All of this plays out in a perfectly entertaining way, and Tom’s first reversal is in fact prepared in a careful and fairly believable way. We come to realize that we know nothing about this young man – except that he is articulate and well-spoken and grieving to the point of self-hatred – and that there is no reason to suppose he is the healthy and well-balanced protagonist we might hope for.
Dolan is so good at orchestrating scenes of intense emotion, however, that the several of these scattered throughout make the rest of the film’s more extreme psychological elements look a little silly: in particular, Tom’s account to the mother of his phone conversation with the (fictional) girlfriend, putting his own heart-rending words into her mouth; and an astonishing scene in extreme shallow focus as the mother goes through her son’s box of schoolboy mementos.
This imbalance is partly tied to some half-hearted business to do with what is real or not – nothing is obviously “unreal,” but Tom deludes himself that life on the farm is “real” in the sense of authentic, and the dark secret is finally revealed in a bar beneath a prominent neon sign reading “The Real Deal.” The emotions here are real, certainly, but the characters most often play as exaggerated fiction, their psychology ramped up to fever pitch. One could hope for a more interesting brother given the hints – learning to dance with his gay sibling, and the odd bond that develops so easily between him and Tom – and at another point this looks as though it could be a story about an intense mother-son relationship, as the mother lashes out unexpectedly and a sly look from Tom implies the realization that he has slipped into the role of favourite son, and the power that affords him. No more is made of this, however.
The tonal disjunct of psychology and emotion make for a shaky ride. The genuinely moving moments raise these characters to something more than mere elements of an entertainment (à la most of Hitchcock), which then makes them hard to reconcile with the more extreme psychological elements (one is even tempted to feel sorry for the monstrous brother by the end). Dolan is a good enough filmmaker however, with, as usual, a few flashy touches, to serve up a perfectly enjoyable, meaningless good time, albeit perhaps unsatisfactory for those who prefer emotional substance and consistency.
AFI FEST festival film page: Tom at the Farm
Country: Canada, France
Director: Xavier Dolan
Screenwriters: Xavier Dolan, Michel Marc Bouchard
Producers: Xavier Dolan, Nathanaël Karmitz, Charles Gillibert
Executive Producer: Nancy Grant
Cinematographer: André Turpin
Editor: Xavier Dolan
Production Designer: Colombe Raby
Music: Gabriel Yared
Cast: Xavier Dolan, Pierre-Yves Cardinal, Lise Roy, Evelyne Brochu, Manuel Tadros, Jacques Lavallée, Anne Caron, Olivier Morin