Film Review: Tom at the Farm

Cinematic wunderkind Xavier Dolan disappoints with this interminably glum and violent exercise, none-too-interesting proof of yet another gay director’s obsession with S&M.
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Young, blond and fairly inscrutable Tom (Xavier Dolan) finds himself in the outlands of Quebec for the funeral of his lover, Guillaume. Although he is staying with Guillaume’s mother, Agathe (Lise Roy), on her dairy farm, she has no idea of her dead son’s sexuality. Her other son, the broodingly handsome and often violent Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), does know the truth, however, and upon first meeting Tom makes his life a living hell, forcing him to keep this (to Francis) shameful secret just that. Although incessantly bullied by Francis, Tom is irresistibly drawn to him, and their days together, as he decides to stay on after the funeral and help out with chores, become endless sadomasochistic games of cat-and-mouse.

What the hell hath Dolan wrought? After the startlingly successful, deeply affecting, beautifully made Mommy (made after Tom at the Farm but released in this country before it), which had even the most virulent detractors of this egotistical auteur (i.e., me) succumbing wholeheartedly, it’s sad to report that the earlier film is not only very short on substance but, what with Dolan casting himself in the title role, rife with the off-putting narcissism his critics have come to expect and denigrate. The film reminds me of those torturous Brando vehicles of the 1950s like One-Eyed Jacks, the more distinguished On the Waterfront, and his particular blondined turn in The Young Lions, in which he was constantly playing noble victims, endlessly victimized by cruel outside forces, his suffering offered up for our masochistic delectation.

Dolan’s main feature as an actor has always been a queeny, smart-ass arrogance, which he tamps down here as Tom, with the result that he remains pretty much a cipher throughout. It’s obviously dangerous for him to stay at the farm, but like those hapless people in movie haunted houses, he refuses to just get his ass out of there. There’s definite homoerotic tension between him and Francis, but it’s mostly chilly and quite nasty, expressing itself in brutalism with Tom on the painful receiving end of things, and wholly lacking in compelling passion. When Tom and Francis finally stop with the incessant, nigh-unwatchable chokeholds and pummeling and suddenly engage in a tango in the barn, the effect is more ridiculous than devastatingly romantic, as this fillip was in Bertolucci’s The Conformist.

Cardinal is physically striking, but in a bland male-model way, with none of the hyper-intense charisma of Antoine-Olivier Pilon in Mommy, who also played a dangerously volatile, raging jerk, but with irresistible charm. Roy’s role might have given any seasoned actress a rich turn, but Dolan’s script—from a play by Michel-Marc Bouchard which shows its static stage roots all too obviously—is so thin, she emerges as just sadly buffoonish. Evelyne Brochu makes a late appearance as Sarah, a friend of Tom’s whom he has coerced into impersonating Guillaume’s imaginary girlfriend for Agathe. She brings fresh, natural estrogen to this drab, macho chamber piece, but is soon jettisoned for the big reveal of Francis’ mysterious and very dark past misdeed, which is almost risibly grotesque in its determination to shock, with its inevitable evocations of Heath Ledger’s Joker and that old Guignol warhorse, The Man Who Laughs.

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