A young filmmaker like Xavier Dolan doesn't come often. Actor, writer, director, editor; the man seems to have a grasp on everything he's given queer cinema so far. Even so, his three first features have had a tinge of film school student to them. But Tom à la ferme (Tom At The Farm), which screened last night as part of the Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, is the first to prove otherwise. By dropping the over-ambitious nature of Laurence Anyways or the over stylized aesthetic present in Les amours imaginaires, Dolan crafts a suspenseful work truly worthy of the praise he's received.
Adapted from Michel Marc Bouchard's play of the same name, Tom à la ferme tells the tale of a young man who travels far out into the country to his dead partner's funeral. When he arrives at his boyfriend's family's farm, the only person to know who he truly was to the deceased is his brother, who takes no time at all to establish that no word is to be spoken about their relationship to his mother. To say things go from bad to worse is an understatement, as the relationship between Tom and these people he's never met kicks off as uncomfortable and takes a slow dive into utter insanity.
For someone who has spent most of his career focusing on impossible romances, it's fascinating to see just how easily Dolan has set aside his style to emphasize the grittiness of this film. He doesn't entirely betray the kind of filmmaker he is, but rather manages to reel in ambition for the sake of providing something fresh. The closest he teeters to slipping into what could be considered his typical music video sensibility is in one gorgeous long take of him walking from a car to a bar stool, set to Corey Hart's "Sunglasses at Night." And yet, thanks to the tight editing on the film, the presence of that scene feels at home, and allows for a quick return to the tension that the film spends its time building.
Bits and pieces are still being drawn from great directors of the past, but this time, they come together to establish suspense more than anything else. From the moment Tom arrives at the farm, not a person to be seen or a sound to be heard, the atmosphere is set. Overhead shots of a car moving forward in an immense, inescapable landscape call to mind The Shining's opening credits, but the filmmaker that's easiest to bring up when discussing Tom à la ferme — in both style and substance — is Alfred Hitchcock. You can see his influence in the uncomfortable presence of violence and sexuality (especially between Dolan and the marvelous Pierre-Yves Cardinal), the palpable tension being drawn from the most innocent of experiences, the pitch black humor injected into edge-of-your-seat moments, and even the sometimes invasive Bernard Herrmann style score by Gabriel Yared.
That being said, all of the formality that comes with a Hitchcock film has been ditched for something raw and realistic. The camerawork never strives to go for an artistic angle (as Dolan has formerly done) and the performances aim for grit rather than class. But it all fits hand in hand with the themes the slim narrative explores. Themes of repression when dealing with death and sexuality aren't exactly subtle, and a couple of scenes prove to be too on-the-nose for the film's own good. But the actors — Dolan, Cardinal, Lise Roy, and Evelyne Brochu — never betray the roles, even when the lines seem as though they might lend a scene even more awkwardness than potentially intended.
There's something to be said about a filmmaker who can take moments that shouldn't work by any means and make something marvelous out of them. For instance, a lengthy segment shot entirely in extreme close-ups, or even a salsa dancing bit smack in the middle of a thriller that would make Baz Luhrmann jealous of how much passion was oozing from it. With Tom à la ferme, Xavier Dolan finally delivers on all the promise he's formerly shown, further proving that he's only getting better and better with each film he delivers.
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The Miami Gay and Lesbian Film Festival runs through May 11. Visit mglff.com.