Moving forwards to Xavier Dolan’s fourth film and his first collaboration with a co-writer, adapting the script from Michel Marc Bouchard’s play, we find Tom à la Ferme. After the first three films of Dolan’s I was still hesitant to declare whether or not I liked him as a director given my equivocal reactions to two of his films (Laurence Anyways and J’ai tué ma Mère). Tom à la Ferme however, is a very different experience. Gone are the pastel colours and baroque inserts in favour of a gritty, earthy yellow thriller atmosphere.
Tom à la Ferme, despite a highly stylised approach, full of haunting music and heightened sound effects, is less mannered than its predecessors. The slick editing and colour scheme only add to the atmosphere and the aspect ratio closing in on the already claustrophobic situation is deployed subtly but effectively. Dolan takes on the lead role once again, playing Tom, a young man grieving the loss of his lover Guillaume, all while hiding Guillaume’s sexuality from his bereaved mother. Enforcing this painful and uncomfortable pretence is Francis, Guillaume’s older brother and Tom’s opposite in every way. Where he is weak and svelt, Francis is a looming and imposing presence even when he’s out of shot. Where Tom is meek, pure, and honest, even while forced to express his emotions for his dead lover through a lie, Francis is a confusing mix of violent and tender and just a little bit self-loathing. He’s the perfect abuser, and abuse he does.
The script is very strong by virtue of its birth as a stage play, yet it does come up against a problem of suspension of disbelief. In the theatre we are very accustomed to characters not leaving the space, since the space is always the stage, yet when the film and the camera can go anywhere Tom’s apparent inability to leave is somehow less believable. It’s a difficult line to draw when you mix the imagery of eternal open plains with a set-up that requires a feeling of entrapment and I’m not entirely sure Dolan always manages to draw it. Nevertheless this film plunges the viewer into the uncomfortable and unhealthy dynamic that sets itself up between these two men and, to a lesser extent, the elderly mother on this farm. The poster image from this film shows one of the particularly successful moments of the film, an argument that takes place within the idyllic wheat-fields which turn out to be an inescapable razor-sharp hell on closer examination.
There’s a point where the film reaches an epitome of disturbing homoeroticism mixed with the looming threat of violence and you begin to wonder if you are in fact watching the fantasies of one or both of these men, or even if this is about to turn into a kind of twisted love story. Fortunately at this point Sarah, the cover-story girlfriend Francis has provided his mother with appears and shocks the viewer back into reality. With her arrival we see just how creepy and unsettling the situation that sucked in both us and Tom has become. He is wearing his dead lover’s clothes as Francis alternately flirts with him and threatens him, treating him as if he were grooming him for future use. As if Tom were another one of the farm animals that keep mysteriously dying around him. We also see the roots of this instability in the mother who fails to be either entirely welcoming or menacing. The performances are very strong and hold up coherently under scrutiny despite the script leaving more questions than answers about every single character’s true motivations.
It’s a gripping ride from beginning to end, fraught with a disturbed and passionate tension as the relationship dynamics build themselves on the foundation of a death. Dolan’s style shows through at certain moments and is palpable in the photographic framing of the shots. Yet more than anything else Tom à la Ferme is a genre piece; and it’s a very good psychological thriller.
- Entertainment: 3/5
- Artistic: 5/5
- Intellectual: 3/5