As Xavier Dolan completes 10 years in cinema, a look at Tom at the Farm

Baradwaj Rangan

Mar 14, 2019 15:23:49 IST

In 2009, I Killed My Mother, a Canadian drama by a first-time filmmaker, premiered in the Director’s Fortnight programme of the Cannes Film Festival. It won three awards. Typically, this wouldn’t be major news — first-time films win awards all the time. But the director, Xavier Dolan, was only 20, and he said he wrote the (partly autobiographical) script when he was 16. Fast-forward 10 years, and Dolan is an art-house star. Mommy (2014) co-won the Jury Prize at Cannes (the other winner was Goodbye to Language by Jean-Luc Godard), and It’s Only the End of the World (2016) won the Grand Prix at Cannes. About the latter, Peter Bradshaw wrote in The Guardian: “This is a pressure cooker of anxiety, a film with the dials turned up to 12.”

Tom at the Farm (2013) is more low-key, more accessible, and a great entry point to this filmmaker’s work. On the surface, it is a moody drama about Tom (Dolan), whose boyfriend Guillaume has died. (Dolan is gay, and his films often contain queer themes.) Tom visits the boyfriend’s mother, Agathe, at her farm, to deliver a eulogy at the funeral — but Agathe doesn’t know Guillaume was gay. And Guillaume’s brother Francis, who stays with Agathe, wants to keep it that way. At night, he sneaks into the guest bedroom and warns Tom: “I knew you would come… I don’t know you, but I knew… Don’t say anything to my mother. She’s already quite sad. She doesn’t need to know anything more… Tomorrow at the church, you’ll say some nice words. And Agathe will love it. And everyone will love it… Then, you’ll pack your things. You’ll be out of our lives. You’ll be gone.”

The film, now, can proceed in a number of ways. It can be about the tug of war between Tom and Francis, one of whom wants Agathe to know and one of whom doesn’t. Or it could be about Francis’s homophobia, and how Tom is in danger. Indeed, the scene where Francis warns Tom in the guest bedroom isn’t just about the menace in those words. It’s about how Francis wakes Tom up, by gagging his mouth with his hands and whispering his threats over Tom’s muffled cries. Dolan’s sound design for this film was actually along these lines. In a director’s note, he said, “Initially, there was to be no music… [I wanted] a crushing silence, from which would emerge, according to my theory, a superior tension. I said to myself: howling wind, creaking floorboards: that’s my passport to terror.”

But that changed, and Gabriel Yared was called to do the score. Dolan said, “His lyrical, confident interpretation and appropriation of the romantic-panic genre was by turns Hitchcockian and Mahleresque.” And what exactly is this romantic panic? Could it be that Francis’s homophobia is really a cover for his being attracted to Tom? In a beautifully framed scene, which unfolds after some mellowing by Francis, we see Tom in the foreground, Francis in the background. Tom is seated, drinking beer, and Francis is standing by the ironing board, pressing clothes. If the visual invokes “traditional” male/female roles and divisions, the illusion is furthered by what Francis tells Tom: “You never asked why I’ve lived with my mother for 30 years… I have a beautiful farm. I am looking. I know you like me. Do not go.”

The twist in the story arrives when Tom tells Agathe that Guillaume did have a girlfriend. This is a lie, but the fluidity with which gender lines are crossed in romantic situations is something we see quite often in Dolan’s work. Take Heartbeats (2010), which is about Francis and Marie falling for Nicolas. At one point, after Marie sees what she thinks is a romantic moment (Nicolas is teaching Francis how to eat a marshmallow, “step by step… like a striptease”), she decides to pack her bags and take off. She takes a path through the woods, soaked in fall colours. Francis gives chase, and they end up wrestling on the ground. Is this a version of the “catfight”, replacing one of the women with a gay man? Or are we, again, seeing an “inversion” of traditionally ascribed gender roles: a woman and a gay man “duelling for love”, so to speak?

In an interview with Little White Lies, Dolan said, “I’ve almost never experienced love as something that was really calm and tender and peaceful and beautiful. It’s always been intense and emotional and aggressive – maybe even abusive. It’s always been these impossible stories of unrequited feelings and chasing people for years, and I’m only 25 so my conception of love is very dramatical (sic)” This drama, this messiness is what keeps his films so alive. Despite its aspirations to the “romantic-panic genre”, it’s hard to put Tom on the Farm in a box. At most, you could say it’s about relationships (both straight and gay, both inter and intragenerational) that feel like picking a scab, which pretty much sums up the broad mood of a Xavier Dolan film.

Baradwaj Rangan is Editor, Film Companion (South).

Updated Date: Mar 14, 2019 15:23:49 IST