A storming a capella rendition of “Les Moulins De Mon Cœur” plays over Tom At The Farm‘s eye-catching aerial shot following a car between corn fields, just after the deliciously cryptic prologue. The singer is not just asking for our attention but full-throatedly demanding it. It’s the first in a series of signature moments in Xavier Dolan’s new film which mark him out as a talent to watch. A fresh young voice able to mould his subject matter into absorbing cinema.
If this remarkable opening sequence lacks subtlety, the ensuing drama eschews big moments in favour of carefully built atmosphere and the occasional jocular spike of misdirection. Dolan is smart enough to know that gimmicks won’t sustain a film, and so Tom At The Farm beds down comfortably into uncomfortableness. Yes, that one definitely got underlined in red.
It tells the story of (surprisingly) Tom, a young man who travels to (you guessed it) a farm to visit the family of his deceased lover Guillaume. There he finds shell-shocked mother Agathe (Lise Roy) along with the farm’s sole custodian, Guillaume’s brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal). It quickly transpires that Guillaume’s homosexuality was never known to Agathe, and that Francis has instead told her that her dearly departed son had a girlfriend. Tom, played by Dolan, feels obliged to perpetuate this lie, navigating narrative inconsistencies in Francis’ story in order to spare Agathe further shock.
This initial set-up sees the film settle into the washed-out, mundane minutiae of family drama, and an initial ambivalence sets in. We’ve seen this kind of muted affair before and, for a spell at least, Tom At The Farm offers few signifiers that it is going to offer anything remarkable or memorable following such a storming beginning.
…But then the unease begins to build. Dolan proves himself gifted in front of the camera as well as behind it, but the real star here is Cardinal, who manages to imbue Francis with a strange, domineering malice, so much so that it is easy to believe in his ability to place all who fall under his shadow in such a cowering thrall. Soon Tom is compelled to stay at the farm. True, Francis has placed his car on bricks to thwart a runaway, but the relationship that builds between them becomes the real entrapment – a bruised, sickly mix of romance and debilitating abuse.
Once this is established, Dolan starts playing gleefully with his audience’s expectations. In more than one instance an abrupt cut careers us into the middle of the next scene as though there’s a reel missing. Immediate context is removed, leaving us to guess or predict just what has led us to, usually, a moment of inexplicable violence. On at least one of these occasions the reveal is completely benign… yet the effect is pronounced. Dolan asks us to notice just how combustible Tom’s situation is. Anything could happen.
That ‘could’ is an important one. The film draws the viewer in, with Hitchockian expertise, as much through promising danger as delivering body blows. The sustained level of threat kicks the film into another gear following it’s muted beginnings. This is only heightened when a fourth player enters the mix; Tom’s friend Sarah (Evelyne Brochu) who has agreed to masquerade as the fictitious girlfriend for who knows what reason.
This French-Canadian thriller then flip-flops improbably between suspense drama and cringe-comedy, as moments of menace bump up against acutely observed situational awkwardness. You’d think the laughs would break the tension. If anything, they add to it.
The four leads here all do exceedingly good work, and while the aforementioned Cardinal deserves the most praise, it would be neglectful to overlook the others’ contributions, not least Roy’s. A scene in which Agathe desperately presses at the lies built up around her quivers as the film’s emotional high note. Tom At The Farm resonates the loudest here, so much so that the comparative simplicity of the film’s final beats may appear perfunctory in comparison.
Importantly, however, the film’s closing scenes feel absolutely right. It would have been very easy to have let Tom At The Farm boil over. Dolan resists, and a memorable scene at a petrol station before the film’s credits underlines just what a delicate balance between bait and reward we’re being treated to here. In most instances Dolan makes the right choice.
Dolan’s film feels like a labour of love (his name peppers the end credits many times in different roles), and it’s a thought-provoking essay on emotional dependence, the complicated nature of abusive relationships and a mournful treaty on how the repression or denial of homosexuality continues to poke holes in people’s lives, even if they live at the fringes of society where the corn is razor-sharp.