Known mostly to film festival followers and foreign film devotees, 26-year-old French-Canadian writer-director-actor Xavier Dolan could be merely summed up as the enfant terrible of Canadian cinema, but that cliché phrase actually applies in this case. Dolan is startlingly talented, clearly motivated, breezily accomplished and able to leap between genres while still maintaining an undeniable style that tells you every film he’s made is his.
A 2013 film now making its way to American screens, “Tom at the Farm” should serve as a strong introduction for anyone wondering what all the fuss is all about — and for those who’ve seen his other work, including “Mommy,” “Heartbeats” and “Laurence Anyways,” it’s even more proof that Dolan is the real deal, a triple-threat with serious skills.
Adapted from a play by Michel Mark Bouchard (with Dolan and Bouchard sharing screenplay credit), “Tom at the Farm” starts as the title character (played by Dolan) travels through the solitude of rural Quebec in search of an address; it’s clear the journey is not a happy one. Soon he arrives at the childhood family farm of his late lover Guillaume, welcomed by Guilliaume’s mother Agathe (Lise Roy) and brooding brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal). Tom has come to pay his respects. Considering that Guilliaume’s mother didn’t know her son was gay, and Francis is dead set on being sure she never knows, those respects come with a price.
With his bleached-blonde hair, too-big leather jacket and John Lennon specs, Tom sticks out like a sore thumb in rural, Catholic Quebec. Francis gets that, and tries to manage Tom in between a series of aggressions that feel like either brutal punishments or clumsy passes: “We’re going to set this straight. She doesn’t know her son was gay. She’s sad enough already.”
Setting an almost-Hitchcockian story of love and death and identity in Quebec has been done before — Robert Lepage’s superb and overlooked “The Confessional,” from 1995 — but there’s no denying the fresh, plainspoken sensibility that Dolan brings to this film’s mix of sex and death and loss and lust. And while some of the film’s cultural and geographic touchstones (the deeply religious nature of rural Quebec, with its vast cold October plains of dead corn so far away from the bright lights of urban, modern Montreal) may elude some American viewers, the story, performances and themes are universal: Do we know the people we love? Do they know us?
Dolan’s an immensely skilled director — his grasp of space, sound, silence and light are all masterful even as he’s directing at his prolific pace. (Dolan has made five features in six years, with a sixth movie on the way.) Cinematographer André Turpin (“Incendies”) shoots in a wide, clean frame, all the better to show the dim shadows and bleak light around all our characters. The extraordinary music by Gabriel Yared (“Cold Mountain”) sets the mood with slashing strings and ominous tones, mixing with the smart but very occasional use of pop music as well: Tom walks into the small town’s only drinking establishment to the strains of Corey Hart’s “I Wear My Sunglasses at Night,” a Canadian trash-classic that also speaks to Tom’s desire to be not quite fully seen.
Before thinking this is a one-man show notable mostly for Dolan’s skill as a director and actor, however, it has to be said that the rest of the cast is also superb, strong in tough scenes and able to simply exist in silent moments. Cardinal’s work as the two-fisted, broken-hearted Francis is impressive, while Lise Roy projects quiet sorrow as a mother who may prefer to not know about her son’s life before his death. Evelyne Brochu also excels as a woman tugged into the web of lies everyone’s making around themselves.
Made of equal parts mourning and melancholy, mystery, and possibly madness, the striking “Tom at the Farm” showcases Dolan’s abundant talents at turning seemingly simple material into a taut, tough film.