Melbourne International Film Festival Review: Tom at the Farm (Tom à la ferme) (Canada/France, 2013)

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A Hitchcockian thriller in the country, Tom At The Farm is a grim exploration of homophobia, secrecy and family sustainability. Directed by Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan (I Killed  My Mother, Heartbeats), the film is based on the play of the same name by Michel Marc Bouchard. Tom – played by Dolan – is a young copywriter who travels to rural Quebec for the funeral of his boyfriend, Guillaume. Upon arrival, he encounters a confused Agathe (Lise Roy) – Guillaume’s mother – who is unaware of Tom’s relationship to her son. Not sure whether to reveal the truth, Tom identifies himself as a close friend and comrade of Guillaume. That evening in bed, Tom is roughly woken by Guillaume’s brother, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), who reveals his awareness of his brother’s boyfriend. After Francis threatens Tom into playing out the “close friend” role for the duration of his stay, the plot develops into a sinister, passive-aggressive game of cat and mouse between the two, the sadistic Francis motivated by the need to protect his family name.

Set in a desolate farmhouse, Tom At The Farm is hardly picturesque, artificially lit by harsh, cheap lighting. When filmed outside, the sun is barely visible, instead depicting a post-apocalyptic green- greyness that compliments the characters dour lives. It’s an alien town, devoid of human compassion and warmth. Francis and Agathe are isolated from the townsfolk, the former openly disliked by many. Trapped within the farmhouse – partly due to his own twisted affection for the brother that reminds him of Guillaume – Tom develops an ambiguous warped friendship with Francis that is eventually severed when Tom learns of Francis’ grave past. The film is Hitchcockian in its steady suspense, voyeuristic camera angles and passive-aggressive characters, both Francis and Agathe examples of the latter with their impassiveness and broodiness eventually erupting into hysteria by the film’s conclusion. Francis is determined to keep Tom imprisoned in the farm, his desperation motivated by a need to clutch onto his brother’s memory, a memory that was disrupted when Guillaume ran away from his childhood home.

Both leading men deliver strong performances, their antithetical roles as predator and prey performed with conviction and realism. Dolan projects an innocent humility that contrasts sharply with Cardinal’s fierce hostility. Dolan is effeminate and timid, Cardinal is chauvinistic and intimidating. Although an undeniable brute, Cardinal’s Francis is somewhat ambiguous, his indirect affection for his mother, his bizarre fondness of Tom and his love of tango separating his character from the archetypal sociopath. Roy plays the grieving and detached Agathe well, her confusion in regards to her son’s “accident” and enigmatic social life gradually boiling over into a powerful emotional breakdown that leaves her innumerable questions unjustly unanswered.

Delivering a perfect cast of almost inscrutable characters, Dolan as director has adapted a story of unforgettable presence. With a haunting score by Academy-award winning composer Gabriel Yared and contemplative cinematography by Andre Turpin, Tom At The Farm leaves its audience motionless by its climactic ending and surprising character development. A brilliant film, Tom At The Farm is a disturbing, radical example of preservation.

Review Score: FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Tom at the Farm screens on the 7th and the 11th at the Melbourne International Film Festival. More details can be found here: http://miff.com.au/program/film/5586