As a French cover of “Windmills of Your Mind” plays, Tom (Xavier Dolan) sings along as golden fields rush by alongside him. He has just finished scrawling a speech on a napkin, a speech he plans to make at the funeral of Guillaume, his 25-year-old boyfriend. To get to the funeral he must travel to the farm where his lover’s family lives. But there are reasons why he and this family have never met.
Québécois director-writer-actor-costume designer Xavier Dolan has taken a decidedly different tack to his previous films. Where I Killed My Mother was a tender burst of angst and Heartbeats and Laurence Anyways were more quietly romantic and bombastically passionate respectively, Tom at the Farm is a highly erotic, queer psychological thriller that wrests control of your senses and refuses to let go for days on end.
When Tom arrives at the farm, he finds an empty house. He falls asleep and is woken up by Agathe (Lise Roy), the mother of his dead boyfriend. She didn’t know he was coming—she didn’t think Guillaume even had friends—and she certainly was not aware of the nature of their relationship. All seems well until Guillaume’s brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) arrives, first scene just as a beefy, muscled torso.
A rugged man who now runs the family’s farm, Francis is well aware of why Tom is there and immediately sets about terrorising him. Their interactions shift at any moment between extremely violent and desirously flirtatious. Alone on the farm to take care of his mother, Francis has developed a significant mean streak and it soon emerges that he has a history of vicious behaviour.
After the funeral, Tom goes to leave, but something makes him stop. The two then fall into a dangerously dependent relationship, with Francis using his familial resemblance to seduce Tom. In one scene, Francis tells Tom that he used to take dance lessons with Guillaume, leads him into a barn, and they begin to tango. Francis tells him that someone must have taught him how to dance, knowing full well that it was his brother.
As things spiral out of control, Guillaume’s beard, Sarah (Evelyne Brochu) belatedly arrives and is immediately caught in the maelstrom of murky secrecy. Tom at the Farm is more interested in unsettling atmosphere than anything much more visceral; it is rare to watch a thriller that thrills largely because it never takes the turn you expect, either backing away or veering off into a different direction, as with the tango scene.
It has become rote to praise Dolan for a visually sumptuous film, but Tom at the Farm is his most unusual yet, trading the vibrant colours of Laurence Anyways for pastoral greens, gold, and browns. The farm is always shrouded in a sphere of fog and rain, making it all the more claustrophobic. Some scenes between Tom and Francis even shift aspect ratio, as if to further narrow the space between homophobic and homoerotic.
This rural landscape exists as an expression of the heterosexism that sadly still exists in pockets of the world. Tom’s inability to escape from Francis is a terrifying manifestation of how this intolerance haunts the lives of queer people, an insidious presence that can be found even in those we assume to be close to us. When Tom tells locals where he is staying, they do not tell him to leave. They know, but they would rather preserve themselves than become involved.
One of the most impressive aspects of Tom at the Farm is how effectively it achieves eroticism through withholding, never quite letting it tip over the edge. Pierre-Yves Cardinal is an imposing, impossibly sexy presence who is equally as threatening and unpredictable. And while Dolan is not the best actor in the world, he fits well into the mould of a somewhat effete, empty city copywriter and plays his development of Stockholm Syndrome well enough to be effective.
The real star of the film, however, is Gabriel Yared’s luscious, Hitchcockian score. It swells and blares like the best of Bernard Hermann (in a clear homage to the legendary composer), somehow existing in a parallel universe to the film yet fitting it perfectly when it slices through extended silences. It is both comforting and unsettling, which is precisely the feeling Dolan seeks to evoke.
Gorgeous, twisty, disconcerting, and moody, Tom at the Farm is not quite the masterpiece found in the form of Laurence Anyways, but it is a relentlessly suspenseful kink on an increasingly underserved genre that proves Dolan to be one of the most impressive working filmmakers in the world today.
[rating=4] and a half
Laurence Barber - follow Laurence on Twitter at @bortlb.