Director: Xavier Dolan
Writer: Xavier Dolan, based on a play by Michel Marc Bouchard
Stars: Xavier Dolan, Pierre-Yves Cardinal, Lise Roy
“Psychological thriller” has almost become a blanket term for any vaguely unsettling film where characters harbour insidious motives. Every once in a while, though, a thriller will make its presence felt and remind you that the word psychological has its roots in the Greek word psykhe, meaning “breath, spirit, soul.” These films hold you captive for their duration and seldom allow any reprieve. Xavier Dolan’s Tom at the Farm is one such film—a far cry from anything Old MacDonald saw in his tenure.
Dolan stars as Tom, an advertising copywriter who travels to rural Quebec for the funeral of his boyfriend, Guillaume. He enters his lover’s childhood home as a stranger, found slumped on the kitchen table by Guillaume’s widowed mother, Agathe (Lise Roy). Agathe is oblivious to Tom’s homosexuality, let alone that he was the partner of her deceased son. And things are set to stay that way when Guillaume’s older brother, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), enters the picture. Francis ensures that no sudden revelations will sully the family name. If Tom steps out of line, Francis wastes no time dishing out violent punishment.
It is disturbing to watch Tom lose his agency as a human being. What begins as a stern threat quickly develops into aggressive grappling in the cornfield. Fear overlaps with obedience as Stockholm syndrome takes hold, and the two men enter into an intoxicating folie à deux, with Tom warming to the task of farmhand. While most people’s natural instinct would be to flee the farm as soon as possible, Tom seems to become “institutionalised”, just like those prison walls gracefully envelop Brooks in The Shawshank Redemption. An extra element of intrigue arrives in the form of Sara (Evelyne Brochu), a young woman called over to the farm to act as Guillaume’s girlfriend, adding further entanglements to the web of emotional manipulation. In one scene, Agathe, Francis, and Tom are seated at the dinner table. Agathe asks Tom if Sara has said anything about Guillaume, and Tom does not hesitate to speak in sexually explicit terms. Francis glares piercingly at Tom, realising these are fabricated lines, and that Tom is indulging in passion by proxy.
Because the film was adapted from a play (of the same name, by Michel Marc Bouchard), the acting was required to be strong. Thankfully, the cast does not disappoint. Dolan portrays Tom as an enigmatic young man who channels the energy of his fear into a quiet inner strength. As Agathe, Lise Roy simultaneously calls to mind the stoic mystique of Barbara Fitts in American Beauty and the haphazard neuroticism of Myrtle Gordon in Opening Night. It is heartbreaking to see her caught in the middle of Francis’ wicked scheme, but we are frequently reminded that this woman can stand up for herself. As the homophobic Francis, Pierre-Yves Cardinal looms around every corner like an imposing deadline. His absence from the frame only creates a presence in our minds. Where has he gone? What is he planning? Playing an outright monster is one thing, but it is far more challenging for an actor to pull off the Machiavellian disposition of Francis, whereby tension is always bubbling below the surface, only occasionally coming to the fore. Consistent close-ups of these characters’ faces reveal nuanced gestures that spell anguish, trepidation, and desire. Through his lens, Dolan perpetuates Ingmar Bergman’s famous statement that the human face is the most important subject of the cinema.
The disconnect between urban and rural spaces is another of Dolan’s fixations. As an advertising copywriter, Tom’s experience with blood may be limited to a few “bleeding” pens in his shirt pocket. Life on the farm means Tom’s hands are given a fresh coat of crimson after he assists with the birth of a calf. Tom describes the “realness” of the country to Sara: “A cow gives birth, there’s blood. When a dog barks, I really hear it.” A birth and a bark are both actions of release. Tom may crave an emotional release after being forced to suppress his true identity for so long under the conditions of Francis’ game. And therein lies the paradox: everything is “realer” in the country, except for the human spirit. Having fewer things to do means that free will is inhibited. But Tom has lost all understanding of free will by dealing with Francis. Fast forward to a scene at a bar where Corey Hart’s Sunglasses at Night announces Tom’s arrival. Away from the cornfields, everything seems false. The very notion of wearing sunglasses at night, like the speaker of the song, hints at concealment. However, a conversation Tom has at the bar compels him to make a very important decision—perhaps the most real thing he has ever done.
Xavier Dolan is 25 years old and has already built an impressive résumé of five feature films. He made his directorial debut at the age of 19 with I Killed My Mother, which won three awards at the Director's Fortnight program at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Heartbeats, Laurence Anyways, and Mommy have all received widespread critical acclaim. Tom at the Farm is actually the first Dolan film I have seen, but I am now extremely keen to check out all the others. This Québécois prodigy is definitely one to watch.