Tom At The Farm (Tom à la ferme)

Canada (2013) Dir. Xavier Dolan

Xavier Dolan is truly a prodigious talent. At just twenty-five years old, this French-Canadian auteur already has a number of acting roles to his name, five films as a director and is the youngest ever winner of the Cannes Jury Prize. Even Orson Welles was a year away from making Citizen Kane at that age!

This, his fourth film, is based on the play of the same name by Michel Marc Bouchard who co-wrote the screenplay with Dolan, rather than an original script from this one man movie making machine. Dolan takes the eponymous role of Tom, who arrives from Montreal to the country for the funeral of his boyfriend Guillaume, where he is shocked to learns that Guillaume’s family, mother Agathe (Lise Roy) and older brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), have no idea who he is or about his relationship with Guillaume.

The night before the funeral however Francis physically threatens Tom to keep the truth about his brother from his mother and to leave the farm immediately after the service. When Tom fails to deliver a promised eulogy at the funeral, Francis pressures Tom into creating a girlfriend Sara, to put Agathe off the trail. Tom is forced to stay longer at the farm to keep the peace between a suspicious Agathe and a bullying Francis, uncovering some disturbing family secrets along the way.

It may not be an original Dolan story but his fingerprints are unmistakably all over this adaptation. After the rather bloated, slightly indulgent but nonetheless wholly engaging Laurence Anyways we find Dolan paring back the extraneous flourishes and fanciful presentation for something more refined and linear. The rural setting dictates an unhurried pace and restrained mise-en-scene and while Dolan complies he is able to put his own unique stamp on the proceedings, evident from the opening aerial shot of Tom’s car driving through a pastel coloured country lane.

As delightful as this scenario sounds, we cannot escape the fact that Tom is driving into trouble, an ominous aura permeating through the screen accompanied by the deathly silence of the farm house. The aggressive welcome from Francis is tinged in mystery, initially leading us to believe he might just not like strangers. Ambiguity is the key to his character as it is gradually revealed he knew about his little brother’s sexual preferences but his mother doesn’t.

Given his track record of tackling issues of sexuality head on in previous films such as Heartbeats, this is never once raised or portrayed on screen. Frissons are hinted with some close confrontations but nothing comes of it. A scene where Tom is chased out into the fields and attacked by Francis has the audience almost resigned to seeing a ferocious fumble in order to define any sexual tension between them once and for all – yet it doesn’t happen. This restraint adds not just a layer of intrigue to Francis and his apparent homophobic attitude but makes for a refreshing change to not see someone get graphic for the sake of it.

Compared to his previous films, Tom At The Farm is Dolan’s most accessible work to date, again arguably down to the source material coming from someone else, whilst retaining certain themes Dolan is known for exploring. The most notable of these is the mother figure and the relationship with her sons, making Agathe the most interesting character in the long run. Like Francis, Agathe is not an easy woman to read and goes through many stages to conceal how she is really feeling – from grief to fear, anger to levity, confused to astute – while ironically remaining the most stable person of the lot of them.

For what sounds like a complex family drama is in fact a rather tense affair, with the simmering tensions between Francis and Tom which, as mentioned before, take some unusual turns, and the mystery as to why Agathe needs to be kept in the dark about Guillaume. Occasionally Dolan leaves it to the visuals and the sparse use of music to create an unsettling mood – the sight of a dead cow on the ground, Tom rushing through a field of corn with stalks taller than his head, the ominous slivers of moonlight creeping into a darkened bedroom, etc. and as clichéd as this may sound it is undoubtedly effective.

By keeping the length down to manageable 103 minutes (Laurence Anyways was just shy of three hours) any accusations of style over substance are null and void, showing a more focused side of our precocious director. This doesn’t mean the photography isn’t stunning when necessary – the aforementioned aerial shots are sublime – and Dolan’s penchant for unconventional framing and spurious visual distractions have been put aside for the sake of the narrative.

However, one very noticeable trait Dolan has employed in place of these cinematic peccadilloes is to hog the screen with his own visage. He may be the director and the star but there is a slight touch of narcissism in how much he dominates with his own face time. Even when there are other people in the scene, the camera will nine time out of ten linger unnecessarily on Dolan. Unless you have a crush on the young chap, this will prove to be a prominent film long distraction.

In all fairness though, Dolan puts in a good turn as Tom, making a change from the usual petulant brats he has portrayed so far, ably supported by a suitably brutish Pierre-Yves Cardinal as Francis and a quietly edgy Lise Roy as Agathe.

Dolan is an unquestionably important voice in modern cinema and to achieve what he has at such a young age is astonishing. Tom At The Farm, even with its niggling flaws and occasional bow to conventions, is arguably his strongest work to date, further establishing his already impressive credentials. Currently his most mature and least indulgent film (aside from the screen hogging), there is little doubt that Dolan’s definitive magnum opus isn’t too far away.