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Thursday, February 26, 2015

Canadian Film Review: Tom at the Farm (2013)

* * * 1/2

Director: Xavier Dolan
Starring: Xavier Dolan, Pierre-Yves Cardinal

To watch an Xavier Dolan film is to watch the films that he was watching at the time he made his. This isn't a bad thing, in and of itself (the same thing could, after all, be said of Quentin Tarantino), particularly when a filmmaker has such good taste in the influences worn on his or her sleeve and such a keen ability to put their own twist on it. Dolan's 2013 thriller Tom at the Farm plays like something from Hitchcock - deeply unsettling, built around anticipation of something happening more than the thing itself, sexually preoccupied, and centering on a protagonist who combines both the "cool blonde" and the unwitting man dragged into a plot he couldn't have foreseen - but it is also, unmistakably, a film with its own voice and point of view. It may also very well be Dolan's least self-indulgent film, running at a brisk pace and featuring not an ounce of narrative of stylistic fat.

Dolan stars as Tom, an advertising copywriter whose boyfriend, Guillaume, has just died. Tom travels to Guillaume's rural home town for the funeral and meets his family for the first time, discovering that they have no idea who he was to Guillaume. Or, rather, that Guillaume's seemingly fragile mother, Agathe (Lise Roy), has no idea while his brother, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), did and has been nurturing an elaborate lie about a woman named Sara who is supposed to be Guillaume's girlfriend. While Agathe is confused and angry that Sara hasn't even called, let alone shown up, in the wake of Guillaume's death, Francis bullies Tom into going along with the lie. Heartbroken by the loss of Guillaume and angry at the treatment he's received from Francis, Tom cannot wait to get back home but he continuously finds himself unable to follow through on his intentions to leave the farm. Though he treats Tom with disdain, hostility, and at times violence, Francis nevertheless wants (and, in fact, demands) Tom to stay on at the farm, both so that he can continue to foster the lie of Guillaume's life with Sara and so that he can assist Francis with the farm work, even though Tom isn't particularly adept at performing the tasks. But beyond the abuse that Francis heaps on Tom - which ranges from intimidation to physical violence - lies the real reason why he wants him there.

There's something sinister about life on that farm. It's not a small operation, and yet Francis and Agathe are the only people ever present on it to keep it running. It's located in what appears to be a small, tight-knit community and yet, though people attend Guillaume's funeral, no one seems to interact with the family and the priest doesn't even get Guillaume's name correct. And then there's the clinic doctor who treats an injury Tom sustains at Francis' hands and seems more concerned about the company Tom is keeping than the injury itself; and a scene in which a taxi driver drops off a surprise visitor at the end of the long drive to the property, explaining that he won't go any closer to "that" house. There's something dark about the family's history and it has made them isolated, and it's that isolation, coupled with Francis' own complex sexuality, that makes Francis cling to Tom. Whether the relationship between the two ever becomes sexual is left vague, but what's clear is that the line between them being in an outright abusive or a consensual dominant/submissive relationship becomes increasingly blurred. Tom is, in a sense, a prisoner at the farm, but there's also a point at which it begins to seem that he's there by choice, that opportunities to escape are presenting themselves and he's just letting them slip away.

Adapted from the play by Michel Mark Bouchard, Tom at the Farm is a fascinating film, often spellbinding, sometimes comically bizarre. Though Tom is the protagonist and point of view character and played by the film's director, Dolan nevertheless consistently cedes scenes to Cardinal, whose Francis is the story's most intriguing monster. Constructed around a brutal internalized homophobia, Francis is a mass of contradictions, so determined in his refusal to acknowledge his brother's sexuality that he carries around a picture of Guillaume kissing a woman in his wallet ("like a trophy," as Tom puts it), while also more or less openly acknowledging his own interest in Tom. Yet, despite that and despite the intensely sexual undertones of all Francis' interactions with Tom, part of his strategy of mind games against Tom involves him pushing Tom aside in favor of a woman. Francis is an unstable force within the narrative (so unstable, in fact, that despite the way that he dominates every scene he's in, there's a scene late in the film between Tom, Francis, Agathe, and a visitor which makes you question whether he actually is in charge at all, or covertly subordinate to his ostensibly fragile mother) that helps ensure that, scene after scene, things are always being pushed right to the edge, and Cardinal's performance finds the perfect balance between danger and dark comedy.

Dolan, whose previous films can be described as being stories about love (in various forms), takes something of a turn with Tom at the Farm, demonstrating in the process a powerful ability to marshal tension in such an effective way that even seemingly innocuous images take on a decidedly menacing bent. I've already mentioned that the film echoes Hitchcock, but it also brought to mind Stanley Kubrick and, in particular, The Shining. Tom's sense of being trapped at the farm - not just by circumstance but by forces beyond his control - and the way that it begins to drive him mad recalls Jack Torrance and the Overlook Hotel, albeit on a much smaller scale. Although there are moments when the film threatens to go over the top, Dolan's work here is tightly controlled and he unfolds the film with a less is more strategy which you might not think him capable of based on his other films. That's not a knock on the other films, which I think range from good to excellent without a dud anywhere in there, but there aren't any moments in Tom at the Farm which feel like they're just exercises in style for the sake of demonstrating style. Tom at the Farm is a lean, mean piece of work and one of Dolan's best so far.

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