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VENICE – Xavier Dolan has an extraordinary eye, as the arresting visual compositions of Tom at the Farm (Tom a la Ferme) constantly attest. And that eye spends considerable time trained on the French-Canadian writer-director himself, given that he plays the title role in a film in which CUT TO EXTREME CLOSEUP OF ME appears to be the predominant script note. Dolan is an accomplished enough actor to withstand the attention, but he inadvertently makes this sinister quasi-thriller — which is as much about gay self-loathing as homophobia — also about auteurial self-adulation.
To be fair, audiences unimpeded by the knowledge that Tom is also the director are at an advantage, since that awareness no doubt skews one’s perception. Already on his fourth feature at age 24, Dolan is not without some justification for his narcissism. His command of film craft is evident in the expressive imagery of Andre Turpin’s cinematography, the sinuous fluidity of Dolan’s editing, and the ballsy over-saturation of a lush score by Gabriel Yared in the classic suspense mode. But Tom at the Farm is also ponderous, overwrought and more than a little pretentious, with a brooding self-seriousness that at times veers into camp.
Detouring from previous features I Killed My Mother, Heartbeats and Laurence Anyways into genre territory, albeit with an artsy overlay, the teasing mystery was adapted by Dolan and playwright Michel Marc Bouchard from the latter’s stage piece. Those roots remain visible in some of the confrontations, in which arch dialogue and cryptic character quirks spiral into the realm of haute melodrama.
Staring out sullenly from beneath a dirty mop of haystack hair, Tom drives from Montreal to a small pastoral town to the torchy strains of an unaccompanied French-language version of “The Windmills of Your Mind.” The disdain for narrative economy is immediately apparent in the ten minutes or more that it takes for him to reach his destination, ascertain there’s nobody home and enter the farmhouse.
When the widowed owner, Agathe (Lise Roy), returns to find Tom asleep at her kitchen table, it’s clear he was unexpected. But she welcomes him upon learning he was a friend of her recently deceased son Guillaume, inviting him to speak at the funeral the following morning. It’s signaled from the outset that Tom was Guillaume’s lover, a fact of which Agathe remains oblivious. She’s indignant that her son’s supposed girlfriend, Sara, will not be attending the service. Perpetuating the deception is the job of Guillaume’s brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), who now runs the farm and wastes no time using intimidation and violence on Tom to keep up the charade.
Dolan is not subtle in his presentation of Francis as an object of dangerous homoerotic desire, even if that’s something of a false trail of clues. But nor is there much of a veil over the suggestion of the surviving brother’s own repressed sexuality. This shifts from insinuation into sweaty reality in an erotically charged scene in which Francis puts a stranglehold on Tom.
More intriguing is the Stockholm Syndrome that grips Tom as he’s pulled deeper into the twisted fiction about Guillaume, in the process getting battered and bruised both physically and psychologically. In a showy flourish, Dolan narrows the aspect ratio at key moments to heighten the sense of Tom’s entrapment, surrender or retaliation.
While Francis’ violent nature would appear to be the primary reason for the townsfolk keeping a wary distance, Agathe is not exactly warm and fuzzy either. It might be unintentional, but this leads to the impression that despite her grief-stricken outbursts, she may on some subconscious level be a knowing participant in the deception.
Reprising the role she played on stage, Roy brings a sorrowful intensity, but Agathe’s awkward smiles, inappropriate peals of laughter and weird non-sequiturs add to the feeling that sanity is in short supply here. Cardinal is a forceful presence, and Dolan also has a certain petulant allure. But, like Sara (Evelyne Brochu), the beard brought in by Tom to throw Francis off guard, the actors are all asked to play the impossible, with character behavior that ranges from inconsistent to bizarre.
This is the sort of insidious scenario that someone like Claude Chabrol might have sculpted into compelling psychodrama. But Dolan is too posturing a filmmaker to be fully at the service of the material, showing scant interest in grounding the story in emotional truth.
It’s also hard to take the film seriously when scene after scene explores the director’s face with such swooning intoxication. Shots of Tom are held and held and then held some more — at the wheel of his car, in the cornfields, running in slow motion with his blond locks dancing in the breeze, sitting pensively on a bed in his underwear, or looking out through a screen door as a single tear streaks his face, like Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables.
Less time spent fetishizing his own image and more on building credible character dynamics and psychological complexity might have helped make this film the dramatic equal of its technical craftsmanship.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition; also in Toronto festival)
Cast: Xavier Dolan, Pierre-Yves Cardinal, Lise Roy, Evelyne Brochu, Manuel Tadros, Jacques Lavallee, Anne Caron, Olivier Morin
Production company: MK2, Sons of Manual
Director: Xavier Dolan
Screenwriters: Xavier Dolan, Michel Marc Bouchard, based on the play by Bouchard
Producers: Xavier Dolan, Nathanael Karmitz, Charles Gilbert
Executive producer: Nancy Grant
Director of photography: Andre Turpin
Production designer: Colombe Raby
Music: Gabriel Yared
Editor: Xavier Dolan
Costume designer: Xavier Dolan
No rating, 102 minutes.
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