Positively narcissistic, Xavier Dolan’s newest film is a stylish and suspenseful tale of homoeroticism in rural Canada. It focuses on the eponymous Tom (Dolan himself) and his psychological journey as he becomes trapped in a sadomasochistic relationship with Quebec farmer Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal). Tom journeys to the farm for the funeral of his boyfriend Guillaume, but it soon becomes apparent that all is not as it seems; Guillaume’s mother Agathe (Lise Roy) is unaware of her son’s sexual orientation, believing him to have a girlfriend named Sarah, whom his brother Francis has fabricated. However, Francis’s motives appear obscured as while under the pretence of protecting his mother in her homophobic ignorance, he too expresses both desire and disgust towards Tom as the two become entangled in an abusive relationship of submission and domination.
David Rooney may have criticised Dolan’s film for its narcissism, but it is Dolan’s performance and chemistry with Cardinal which drive the film, marking the former as a true auteur, having explored directing, writing, costume design and acting, all shy of his twenty-fifth birthday. The dual genre of psychological thriller and horror also requires a certain attention to the nuances of facial expressions and the emotional intensity which they convey. Through Dolan’s use of multiple close-ups, we are made keenly aware of the varying degrees of pride, shame, desire and self-disgust which Tom displays, providing insight into the psychological vulnerability of the titular character and discrediting Rooney’s negative accusation. This achievement, however, cannot be attributed solely to Dolan, being made possible as it is through André Turpin’s superb cinematography. In the opening sequence of Tom at the Farm, Turpin contrasts the wide open, naturally-lit establishing shots of the rural landscape and farmlands with the tight spaces and dimly lit claustrophobic interiors of the farmhouse and church. These enclosed spaces come to symbolise the constricting nature of the farm and Tom’s entrapment; the tapered rooms of the farmhouse represent its owners’ narrow-mindedness and their bigoted, conservative views on homosexuality.
Dolan’s narcissism is also required to develop the theme of identity in the film, again voiding Rooney’s negative criticism of a positive attribute. This is apparent when Tom meets Agathe and Francis who, while present in the frame, are not given the close-ups or attention that is applied to Tom; when first introduced they are obscured from view, metaphorically concealing their identities. This correlation between faces and identities in the film is encapsulated by Guillaume, who is first shown in Tom’s hallucination as expressionless, without a face, suggesting how his identity is constructed by others. Then, as the film reaches its psychological climax, less visual attention is paid to Tom as frequent close ups of other characters steal focus, demonstrating his loss of identity as his relationship with Francis causes self-loathing. It is this steadfast focus on narcissism which marks Dolan’s film, emphasising the importance of facial expression, matched only by Turpin’s attention to cinematography.
Meanwhile, academy award winner Gabriel Yared’s score has an ambivalent effect when accompanying the film. The score is critically acclaimed for being chillingly effective in connoting atmospheric tones of horror, which are nevertheless slightly incongruous to the levels of emotional intensity it accompanies. It is therefore the silence and diegetic background noises of the film that provides the real haunting suspense, reminiscent of Hitchcock. The sinister silences are undercut with the sounds of wind blowing through corn, heavy breathing and the extra-diegetic motif of a ticking clock which prowl the unspoken suspense, whereas Yared’s score withdraws from the immersion and the frightening realism of the silences.
Overall, Dolan’s latest film is an asset to his career as an auteur, demonstrating new levels of immersion that work to convey the psychological journey of the film’s characters in dealing with the suppression of homosexuality, sadomasochism and methods of dealing with grief, and their ensuing trauma.