With J’ai tué ma mère, Les amours imaginaries and Laurence Anyways, the French-Canadian writer-director, Xavier Dolan goes in a new direction with his first genre defined movie, Tom à la ferme.
The opening scene of Tom à la ferme is stunning. A wide shot of a lake at the edge of Quebec’s massive cornfields. As the camera pans over land, we follow a thin brick road in the middle of said cornfields, until a car enters the frame. A hard cut takes us inside the car, in the passenger seat of Tom – played by Xavier Dolan himself. He is on his way to the funeral of his boyfriend, who is set to be buried in his home town.
Tom arrives at the family farm, only to find it empty and deserted. He enters the house and falls asleep at the kitchen table. When woken by an the mother of his diseased boyfriend, we learn that his visit is not only unexpected, but his relationship to the mothers son is not known. Agathe (the mother, played by Lise Roy) did not know of her sons sexual orientation, but has a false image painted of it, by her eldest son, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal). Francis paints his brothers picture around a female partner, and Agathe believes they’ve lived together up until his death. This is a cover Francis wants to keep even when Tom arrives, so his conservative mother can keep whatever image she had of the son she’s lost.
Francis is not a man to be crossed, as he makes it clear from his first appearance. He is, compared to Tom, brute force and power, and will hurt Tom both physically and mentally to keep him at bay. When Tom tries to leave the farm and countryside after the ceremony, he finds himself forced to return. This scene, and the opening shot of the thin brick road which leads in an out of the town, sets a presence in the movie. It feels as if Tom can’t leave the farm, as if there is a force holding him back. It’s a classic thriller trope, and used by Xavier Dolan to all it’s extent. In many ways it feels like Twin Peaks. The “Welcome to Twin Peaks” sign in the intro feels in many ways as a blockade for the inhabitants of the small town, and as the urban landscape shots of this years True Detective, the milieu of Quebec feels dangerous and consuming.
This is a full blown psychological thriller, and has much and more in common with the Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. Many have pointed at this while discussing Tom à la ferme, and it makes it all the more impressive when you consider the fact that Xavier Dolan had only seen one Hitchcock movie post-Tom à la ferme.
Throughout the movie, Dolan uses many instruments to present the thriller aspect, but he also makes it his own with a unique sense of confidence. His most functional effect is the use of aspect ratio. As the tension in the scenes rises, he crops the ratio – pressing the black bars above and under the screen towards the middle – forcing on a claustrophobic feeling to both the audience and Tom. As Francis has Tom in a horizontal chocking hold, the aspect ratio shrinks around them, with a musical score that is as tense alone, as it is accompanied by the actions depicted.
The movies only flaw (and I’m not sure it is a flaw) is it’s length. Fresh of his third feature film, Laurence Anyways, it feels as if Xavier Dolan felt the need to go back to his roots. Laurence Anyways is a two and a half hour epic, where as Tom à la ferm (and the rest of his filmography) is about 90 minutes at length. It worked with J’ai tué ma mère and Les amours imaginaries, but here the character development takes a hit as a result.
Toms connection and relationship to those around him changes throughout the movie, and even though I understand where and how it happens, it feels a little rushed. There is an audible connection between Tom and Francis, and it makes it harder for Tom to move on after the funeral, and leave Francis behind. Given a few more minutes, this could have been explored to a bigger extent, but the subtlety also works wonders towards the end of the movie.
Even tough Dolan wanted to master something new with this thriller, his signature is not gone. Tom à la ferme explores sexuality, identity and love. Francis hate towards Tom is not necessarily based in homophobia, but just as much in self-loathing. Dolan works wonders when it comes to these types of exploration, and it’s clear that he puts a lot of himself into his movies. It’s a psychological thriller with a curious heart, that explores different sides of each character without falling into the cliche and sentimental soup Dolans previous movies had (not saying that’s bad). It a refreshing change of pace for the 25 year old filmmaker, and it makes me even more exited for his fifth movie, Mommy.