Sydney 2014 Review: Taut Thriller TOM AT THE FARM Reinvents Director Xavier Dolan

As of this writing, wunderkind French-Canadian director Xavier Dolan at the age of 25 is premiering his fifth feature film, Mummy, on the Croisette. Making its Australian premiere at the Sydney Film Festival, however, is Dolan's fourth work, Tom at the Farm, which screened in competition at the 70th Venice International Film Festival last year.

Tom, who is played by Dolan himself, is a grief-stricken copywriter from the city who must travel to the country in rural Quebec for the funeral of his boyfriend Guillaume. The uncanny attributes of his lover's family farm become immediately clear when Tom is treated both as an outsider and a loved son by grief-stricken and lonely single mother Agathe (Lise Roy). The stark and empty confines of the farm, combined with the dithering grey of the weather, reflect Tom's inner turmoil and his tortured and conflicted grief. Tom's state of mind is further complicated when he realizes that nobody knows who he is or that Guillaume was, in fact, homosexual.

Before Tom has the chance to clarify anything, Guillaume's brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), an unhinged, imposing, yet desperately lonely man, toys with Tom and begins playing intense and pseudo- sexual mind games with him. He threatens Tom not to disclose who he is, lest Agathe, who he is stuck with on the farm, finds out. As Tom spends more time with the brother, integrating into the laboring malaise of farm work, he realizes that there is far more that has happened on the farm and in the town than he possibly imagined, and fears for his life as his chances of leaving and his dangerous attraction to Francis come to a head.

The chemistry between Tom and Francis is what drives the film to its disturbing and uncanny heights. Likened to Hitchcock for its stunning suspense and direction, the film actually has more in common with recent Cannes title Stranger by the Lake in its depiction of a lethal attraction, although admittedly it is far more restrained than Stranger's erotic perniciousness.

Francis is a brute of a man with a knack to be both vicious and forgiving, baseless and charming. It is his dreamlike entrance into the film that draws Tom, and his feelings out in the open, to be exploited both mentally and physically. Tom and Francis play off each other, and the direction is taut and confined throughout; the locations around the farm change, but it is the same dour mood that haunts Tom and every scene he is in. As he finds the walls closing in on him, his options or desire to leave seem to dissipate unknowingly, silently persuaded by Francis's coarse hand.

There are other elements at play, pot boilers in the background, such as Guillaume and Francis's domineering mother Agathe, who is played straight down the line so the audience is constantly questioning how much she knows. Sara (Evelyne Brochu), who is Tom's friend, also makes an appearance, only to get caught in the same web he does. These components of the film are depicted more as the original format intended (the film was based on a play); these characters perform their parts, but allow center-stage for Tom and Francis's entangled and estranged relationship. It is how this relationship is depicted that separates this film from Dolan's other works.

In terms of the style over substance Dolan has a penchant for, other than one cool moment that uses Corey Hart's neo-pop song Sunglasses at Night perfectly, Dolan uses simple close-ups, stark, dimly lit interiors, and stormy grey exteriors in lieu of his unbridled color, montage and camerawork. The fact a director can not only completely change his modus operandi but do so in a way that draws attention with its effortless confidence demands nothing but complete respect. Operating at a master's level, Tom at the Farm is another brilliant piece of filmmaking from the incomparable Xavier Dolan.

Tom at the Farm is screening at the Sydney International Film Festival on the 4th and 13th of June. Check their website for further details.
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