For his fourth feature, Canadian wonder boy Xavier Dolan adapts Michel Marc Bouchard's stage play and ejects most of the pop culture flourishes that had become trademarks of his previous, self-penned films. It's a strong suggestion that, with this claustrophobic three-hander set in rural Canada, Mr. Dolan, only just 24 at the time of its completion, wanted to make clear that he could also be an adult, sober filmmaker, in a sort of "rite of passage" to shut up those who still see him as a flash in the pan or as a yet unformed talent.
But while it is, in fact, sober and very focused, Tom à la ferme is not exactly the "grown-up" film Mr. Dolan might have set out to do. For me it's not as mature as the sprawling Laurence Anyways: while it's always laudable to see a filmmaker stretching, the self-contained Cold Comfort Farm claustrophobia of the new film is less of a fit for Mr. Dolan's flashy sensibility than the more expansive gestures of previous work. Gabriel Yared's Bernard Herrmann-ish score creates a Hitchcockian tension, extended by the pressure cooker atmosphere expertly ramped up by the director, but that the plot doesn't really have much sustenance for.
While the film is in constant danger of bursting apart at the seams, it's to Mr. Dolan's credit that the result sets up such an oppressive, disquieting mood and opens out successfully Mr. Bouchard's play, showing what happens when gay, urbane ad man Tom (played by the director) travels to the countryside for the funeral of his boyfriend and finds himself at the mercy of the menacing older brother. Hyper-macho, seemingly homophobic and estranged from the community around him, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) has created an elaborate fantasy to hide from his mother (Lise Roy) that his brother, who left for the big city as soon as he could, was gay. What follows is an outlandish take on the Stockholm Syndrome where Tom and Francis circle each other warily with a combination of disgust and desire, seeking to hold on to something of the dearly departed and finding much of their own identity interlocked with it in ways they can't quite explain.
But the unusual ménage à trois with the deceased brings out a few suggestions of past misdeeds that the film never really exploits properly, and becomes a sort of "intermission" in the real life of all involved, a sort of poison-pill that makes things get worse before they get better. Though handled with determination and poise, this gives Tom à la ferme a sense that this is more of an exercise for the filmmaker than a truly heartfelt project; an attempt to cut back on the flamboyance and come out with something more adult, taking on the questions of identity present throughout his films in a way that might be less abrasive for wider audiences. And while Mr. Dolan does come up with the goods in purely practical terms, the film does come across as an overly serious, almost calculated ploy. Nevertheless, it has been thrilling to watch the multi-hyphenate filmmaker "grow up in public" ever since his very promising debut J'ai tué ma mère, and if this seems to be a step back from Laurence Anyways, it does prove that there are more arrows to his bow than most think.
TOM À LA FERME
France, Canada 2013
Cast Xavier Dolan, Pierre-Yves Cardinal, Lise Roy, Evelyne Brochu
Director, costume designer and editor Mr. Dolan; screenwriters Mr. Dolan and Michel Marc Bouchard; based on the stage play by Mr. Bouchard Tom à la ferme; cinematographer André Turpin (colour); composer Gabriel Yared; art director Colombe Raby; producers Nathanaël Karmitz, Charles Gillibert and Mr. Dolan; production companies MK2 Productions and Sons of Manual in co-production with ARTE France Cinéma
Screened June 11th 2014, UCI El Corte Inglés 14, Lisbon (distributor press screening)