Sunday, January 5, 2014

Tom à la ferme (Tom at the Farm)

Wunderkind Xavier Dolan never seems to make it to the AFI festival because he's always off shooting his next movie (four movies by the age of 24 and Cannes prizes galore). He was in production on this one when last year's Laurence Anyways screened, a continuation and expansion of the high-pitched emotional drama of his first two films. Whether these were conceived as a triptych or not, Dolan switches tack for his fourth, adapting a play by Michel Marc Bouchard, and serving up a psychological thriller that borders on grand guignol.

Dolan himself plays Tom, with a mop of sloppy dyed blond hair, a dusting of stubble, and a chunky biker jacket. He is marked out as an urban creature, arriving at a remote farm, where the script will convey with neat economy that he is there for the funeral of his dead lover, whose mother did not know her son was gay, and whose brother is a (suspiciously) vehement homophobe.

Less elegant than the exposition, however, is the insistently ominous music that accompanies Tom's arrival, wandering around the empty (but otherwise entirely unsinister) farm buildings. Gabriel Yared does a good Bernard Herrmann pastiche, later explicitly evoking themes from Psycho and Vertigo amongst others, and this is not the only hint of Hitchcock (there's even a cornfield chase). The jolt of incongruity when this music first strikes up, however, is symptomatic of the tone - or rather, lack of even tone - that Dolan pursues.

It all plays out in a perfectly entertaining way, and Tom's first reversal is in fact prepared in a careful and fairly believable way. We come to realise that we know nothing about this young man except that he is articulate and well-spoken and grieving to the point of self-hatred, and that there is no reason to suppose he is the healthy and well-balanced protagonist we might hope for. Yet one has to swallow not one but two complete motivational volte-faces on Tom's part, and an almost comic-book bogeyman in the form of brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), his face conspicuously obscured until a shock reveal (given the shadow of Hitchcock, guess where). And simply given the isolated rural setting, there has to be some ghastly secret connected to the family: when revealed it's both more banal in its cause and more grotesque in execution than one could have imagined.

Dolan is so good at orchestrating scenes of intense emotion, however, that the several of these scattered throughout make the rest of the film's more extreme psychological elements look a little silly: in particular, Tom's account to the mother of his phone conversation with the (fictional) girlfriend, putting his own heart-rending words into her mouth; and an astonishing scene in extreme shallow focus as the mother goes through her son's box of schoolboy mementos.

This imbalance is partly tied to some half-hearted business to do with what is real or not - nothing is obviously "unreal", but Tom deludes himself that life on the farm is "real" in the sense of authentic, and the dark secret is finally revealed in a bar beneath a prominent neon sign reading "The Real Deal". The emotions here are real, certainly, but the characters never quite ring true, with the psychology ramped up to such a feverish pitch. One could hope for a more interesting brother given the hints - learning to dance with his gay sibling, and the odd bond that develops so easily between him and Tom - and at one point this looks as though it could be another story about an intense mother-son relationship, as the mother lashes out unexpectedly and a sly look from Tom reveals how easily he could slip into the role of favourite son.

This disjunct of psychology and emotion makes for a shaky ride. The genuinely moving moments make of these characters at times something more than mere components of an entertainment (à la most of Hitchcock), but the more extreme psychological elements result less from character than from the requirements of the thriller mode. Dolan is a good enough film-maker however, with as usual a few flashy touches, to serve up a perfectly enjoyable entertainment, ultimately lightweight but spikey enough to intrigue, even if it does not quite play to his strengths.

d/sc/ed Xavier Dolan p Xavier Dolan, Charles Gilibert, Nathanaël Karmitz ph André Turpin ad Colombe Raby m Gabriel Yared cast Xavier Dolan, Pierre-Yves Cardinal, Lise Roy, Evelyn Brochu, Manuel Tadros
(2013, Can/Fr, 105m)
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