Xavier Dolan’s Tom at the Farm premiered at Venice and Toronto in the autumn of 2013. Failing to secure U.S. distribution, the film has languished despite the formidable reputation of its young director and positive word-of-mouth on the picture. Meanwhile, Dolan would go on to screen his newest film Mommy in competition at Cannes, winning a shared Jury Prize award with Jean-Luc Godard. Since the honor, Mommy has screened at numerous film festivals around the globe, and has been selected as Canada’s submission for the Foreign Language category at next year’s Academy Awards. Distributor Roadside Attractions will be rolling out the film later in the year. But what about Tom at the Farm? Having recently screened for Chicago’s LGBT International Film Festival to a packed theater, the film reinforces that Dolan is one of cinema’s most gifted and exciting new filmmakers.
Those familiar with Dolan for the stylistic flourishes of Laurence Anyways may be surprised to see how subdued the director is on this outing. While his penchant for aggressive stylism is still there, it’s not Tom at the Farm’s highlight. Instead, this is a film about repression and anxiety and as such, it figures prominently into the construction of the picture. The film opens with a stunning sequence where Tom (Xavier Dolan) drives through the murky flatlands of Quebec. The Shining-esque opening, set to a cover of Michel Legrand’s "Les Moulins de Mon Cœur", is at the same time soothing and jarring - this a very deliberate siren’s song to lure you into this rural nightmare. Tom takes shelter in the home of his recently deceased boyfriend, Guy. Finding the home abandoned, he sleeps at the kitchen table before being startled by the home’s owner - Guy’s mother Agatha (Lise Roy). While initially startled to find this young man in her home, she quickly welcomes Tom. With so few people attending Guy’s funeral, she’s thankful to hear from anyone in Guy’s life. She is also unaware of Tom and Guy’s relationship. Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), Guy’s brother, is less welcoming. He’s aware of Tom’s relationship to Guy and does not want his mother to know of Guy’s homosexuality. Francis exerts himself over Tom, creating scenario upon scenario for Tom to follow and, more often than not, violently lashing out against Tom when he fails to meet his impossibly high standards.
As the opening of the film suggests, there’s a loosening of convention that one needs to accept when entering this picture. Dolan utilizes naturalistic performances and lays them atop unusual circumstances. He did this in Laurence with its hypervisuals and he does this in Tom at the Farm through narrative conjecture and subtle touches to the picture’s aspect ratios. Whereas Wes Anderson’s fussy The Grand Budapest Hotel utilized multiple aspect ratios to highlight passages of time, Dolan utilizes aspect ratios in relation to Tom’s anxiety. The frame tightens into ultra wide-screen when the character is in peril, where Francis’ victimization reaches its most violent. Dolan, in one of the film’s highlights, uses a 4:3 ratio to convey the awkward proximity found between characters. And his frequent close-up also heightens the deep-rooted tension that magnifies as the picture proceeds.
While most commentators would be quick to suggest the Hitchcockian connection in Tom at the Farm, this effort harkens back to a somewhat more contemporary influence: Roman Polanski. The obvious psychosexual elements resemble pictures like The Tenant and Repulsion, though it’s the sense of confinement that feels so much more palpable. Even as Tom attempts to leave the farm, he’s perpetually drawn back by external forces. Is it the guilt that’s left behind by Guy’s death? Or the subservient-dominant relationship that he has with Francis? The farm and its inhabitants begin to eat into Tom, to the point that he begins to become dependent on Francis and Agatha’s hospitality. It’s almost as if he’s being recruited into their dark army by beating into his sanity in the same way that Mia Farrow’s character was beaten into submission in Rosemary’s Baby.
The picture’s dark material may have something to do with the film’s failure to attract distribution, but it really should not prevent those from trying to catch this picture. Here’s an exciting new filmmaker with a distinct and aggressive voice. There aren’t many filmmakers working today with such a defined and rigorous approach, and certainly none with as much youthful exuberance. Tom at the Farm may be a departure of sorts, but it nevertheless shows that Dolan can move fluidly from genre to genre without sacrificing his unique worldview.