Xavier Dolan is no stranger to accusations of narcissism and precociousness. Throughout his brief, but highly prolific career, the now 28-year-old Québécois writer-director (and editor and costume designer) has appeared as an actor in three of his six films, causing some critics to declare that “nobody shoots Xavier Dolan like Xavier Dolan.”
In his debut, I Killed My Mother (2009) – made when he was just a 20-year-old – Dolan takes the lead role as 16-year-old Hubert Minel. It’s a semi-autobiographical story about a gay man’s fraught relationship with his mother, who he has to metaphorically "kill" to move forward. The camera sits close to Dolan’s face, capturing Hubert’s conflicted experiences. A similar adoration is at work in Heartbeats (2010), in which Dolan plays Francis, one of two friends in love with the same man. But accusations of vanity deny the fact that Dolan’s camera is no less enamoured with the faces of his co-stars.
In Tom at the Farm (2013), which won the FIPRESCI prize at the Venice International Film Festival, Dolan stars as Tom, and the camera is with him for all the film. We first see Tom driving his car from Montreal to rural Quebec for the funeral of his lover, Guillaume, who has died in an accident, under circumstances that are never explained. When he arrives at the farm where Guillaume’s mother, Agathe (Lise Roy), and his older brother, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), live, it is dusk and he finds the house empty. He’s not expected; he wanders around, finds a key and lets himself in. Much of these opening sequences occur with little dialogue, allowing Dolan to reveal Tom’s barely contained grief through facial expressions and body language.
"Dolan’s use of space creates an atmosphere of quiet terror."
When Agathe comes home and finds Tom asleep at her kitchen table, it becomes clear she has no idea the part he played in her son’s life. She’s waiting for a girlfriend to come and pay her respects. Under escalating threats from Francis, Tom maintains a charade about his sexuality, explaining that he and Guillaume were friends and co-workers. Francis’s homophobic violence intensifies, yet Tom stays on at the farm, helping to tend and milk the cows. He’s depressed and afraid, and becomes a seemingly willing participant (as if he’s suffering from Stockholm syndrome) in his own captivity and torture.
An adaptation of the play of the same name by Michel Marc Bouchard, Tom at the Farm is Dolan’s first venture into genre filmmaking. Marketed as a psychological thriller, the film’s suspense – and even horror elements – emerges from the increasingly claustrophobic, self-contained world that Dolan constructs. Pacing and tone create a creeping dread, and as the story progresses, a mounting uncertainty about character psychology and motivation. Dolan magnifies the danger closing in around Tom by making Francis initially faceless. We don’t see him properly until the day of the funeral – before then, he’s a monster who bursts out of the darkness when Tom is sleeping, then pushes into the bathroom when Tom is showering. Dolan frames these incidents tightly, trapping us in Tom’s nightmare.
Dolan’s use of space creates an atmosphere of quiet terror. The film, as its title suggests, condenses its action to Tom at the farm. The opening scene, in which an overhead shot follows Tom driving towards the farm, positions his car in a vast, blank openness that is unnerving – the opposite of the bucolic feeling we usually get from a rural idyll. When he arrives at the farm, he can’t get a signal for his phone. Long shots and wide shots only magnify the sense of emptiness and Tom’s isolation, externalising his psychology. This might be an open space, but it’s no less constricting. This tyranny seeps into the film’s visual aesthetic through the strangely washed out yellow and blue colour palette Dolan uses – even his hair, here, matches the dried out cornfields – which is both muddy and saturated in a perpetual half-light.
Dolan also uses sound to amp up the dread. The natural environment provides plenty of its own terrors – the hiss of wind, the squelch of mud and the sound of Tom running, panicked, through cornfields that sound like razors scratching at his skin. The haunting, sometimes jarring score, by Oscar-winning composer Gabriel Yared (The English Patient) nods to Bernard Herrmann’s work for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and its heart-pounding compositions at key moments.
But Dolan uses these genre conventions to craft a very different kind of thriller that is still unequivocally a Xavier Dolan film. Tom at the Farm is no less emotionally ravaging than Dolan’s earlier films – or the film that he followed it with, It’s Only the End of the World (2016) – simply because it’s also a chilling psychological thriller. It embraces Dolan’s operatic tones and colour surges within this template, including an audacious, perversely romantic tango scene. When Tom is forced to look through a box of Guillaume’s keepsakes, as Agathe laments how little she knows and understands, Dolan shoots all the characters in extreme close-up. Dolan’s films are all interested in big feelings and in characters placed in pressure cooker emotional environments. Tom’s grief is all consuming; his sadness so vast, it is twisted into something sinister. Dolan is suggesting Tom is plunged into a sort of madness, where the real monster is the closet that his stay on the farm is forcing him back inside.
Throughout Tom at the Farm, images are tethered to emotions, to what goes unsaid. Dolan wants us to watch the film with our eyes and ears, but also with our hearts. We feel the weight of the lies that have poisoned his time on the farm when Tom finally has the chance to explain, aloud, why he’s in the country. “My man died,” he tells the bartender at The Real Thing (played by Dolan’s father, Manuel Tadros). Something shifts, a weight lifts and there’s a palpable sense of relief on Tom’s face as he begins to emerge from this nightmare.
Dolan’s face is neither distraction nor detraction in Tom at the Farm. Rather, it’s one of the film’s greatest strengths. It is only right that a film about the psychological cost of homophobia examine in close-up how that character reacts and responds to his environment. By the film’s final scene, when Tom comes face to face with the extreme violence that he has narrowly escaped, Dolan rightly keeps the camera on his own face – his is a sensitive and restrained response that confirms just how powerful a performance he’s given throughout.
Watch 'Tom at the Farm' at SBS On Demand