Film Review: Tom at the Farm
In deep grief over the sudden death of his lover, Guillaume, a young man named Tom travels from Montreal to a gloomy dairy farm in rural Canada to pay his respects to the deceased’s family. Guillaume’s bereaved mother, Agathe (Lise Roy), welcomes Tom warmly enough, but appears to have no idea who he is; erring on the side of caution, Tom introduces himself as simply a coworker and friend. Guillaume’s brutish, volatile brother Francis (the excellent Pierre-Yves Cardinal, who physically resembles a brooding, Gallic, malevolent Ben Affleck) is desperate to keep the nature of Tom’s relationship with Guillaume a secret from his mother. He enlists Tom’s reluctant aid in maintaining a web of careful lies about Guillaume’s fictional girlfriend, a woman named Sarah. When Tom balks at going along with the ruse, Francis turns nasty. Emotional manipulation and intimidation escalate into vicious physical attacks, and Tom soon finds himself a prisoner on the farm, caught up in the bizarre dynamic between Francis and Agathe.
A spare yet elegant 2013 French-language psychological thriller, Tom at the Farm (Tom à la ferme) is directed by Xavier Dolan, who also stars as Tom; the script, co-written by Dolan, is adapted from a stage play by acclaimed French-Canadian playwright Michel Marc Bouchard. Just twenty-six, Dolan has already directed six films; his 2014 drama Mommy won the Jury Prize at
Cannes. In what can only
be seen as a case of ridiculous overkill, he’s also been gifted with a
charismatic screen presence. With his angelic face and his tattoos and his
shaggy bleached mop of hair, Tom is a dish; it’s not tough to see why Francis
is fascinated by him.
In their first encounter, Francis springs on Tom in the middle of the night and pins him to the bed while hissing threats; in the morning, he walks in on Tom in the shower, then corners him in a bathroom stall in the church after Guillaume’s funeral. Long before Francis and Tom are dancing a spot-on tango together in the barn, it’s clear Francis—vicious, frightening, violently homophobic Francis—isn’t viewing this as (just) a sadistic, brutal game. To Francis, this is a courtship.
Only Francis doesn’t quite have the hang of modern romance. He substitutes violence for affection in a reflexive manner that suggests he no longer can differentiate between the two. He takes Tom out for a night on the town, which they spend binge-drinking outside an abandoned farm, as Francis, with good reason, is not welcome anywhere in his small rural community. He’s wearing cologne; it’s a date, sort of. He maneuvers Tom against the wall and leans in. It seems likely to culminate in a kiss… and then Francis chokes Tom hard enough to turn his neck black with bruises.
(It’s tough to tell what Agathe makes of all this. On some level, she surely knows that “Sarah” is a myth, that Tom, for all purposes, is the real Sarah, that her troubled younger son led a double life, that the family farm is withering and dying under Francis’s care, that there’s something terribly, horribly wrong with her elder son. Whatever she knows or suspects, she keeps it mostly to herself, though she does haul off and wordlessly slap Francis when faced with physical evidence that her son is beating their house guest.)
Cut off from the world, exhausted and injured, in a constant haze of grief and confusion and fear and self-loathing, Tom grows dependent upon Francis. That Francis reminds him physically of his dead lover only addles his emotions further. Anxious to please Francis, Tom summons his coworker Sarah (Evelyne Brochu, the lovely and duplicitous Delphine on Orphan Black) to the farm to placate Agathe by posing as Guillaume’s mythical girlfriend. In no time, Sarah correctly assess the situation; within minutes of her arrival, she’s wielding a butcher knife to protect herself from Francis. Upon hearing of this, Tom can only shrug and make half-hearted apologies for Francis’s behavior. This is Tom’s new normal.
It takes a chance conversation at the local watering hole, at which Tom finally hears the ghastly tale of why Francis is so feared and reviled in the community, to burst any illusion that his relationship with Francis—whatever it is—is sustainable, or even survivable. Awareness is a step in the right direction, but escaping from the farm is another matter entirely.
(Tom at the Farm opens in the
in limited theaters and will be available from on-demand video services on
August 14th. It’s unrated, but probably would’ve earned an R for
violence, language, and mild gore, not to mention all the terribly adult
situations. It’s very good; you should all see it. And it has perhaps the
finest use ever of Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night.”) United States