In Xavier Dolan’s fourth film as a director—tricksy psychological thriller Tom at the Farm (based on a play by Michel Marc Bouchard)—the chameleonic 24-year-old multihyphenate steps in front of the camera, and is almost unrecognisable. Dowdily dressed and with his cupidic face obscured underneath a straggly, dirty peroxided mullet, he looks less like a chic international auteur than an unlikely cross between The Charlatans singer Tim Burgess and Heath Ledger’s The Joker from The Dark Knight. When, in one of the film’s many fraught confrontations, his Tom suffers a cut just above the cruel curl of his lip, the Joker resemblance is so pronounced that I figured it must be intentional.
Dolan’s confounding appearance is hugely appropriate for a Patricia Highsmith-esque suspenser which lingers tantalisingly in the liminal zone between truth and lies; the real and the imagined. Tom, an advertising copywriter (so not unused to adding a certain gloss to stories) drives out to a remote farmhouse to ostensibly read a eulogy for his late friend, 25-year-old Guillaume, but things are far from simple. Guillaume’s mother Agathe (a touching, dignified Lise Roy) has no idea that her son was gay, less so that he and Tom were an item. In fact, Agathe is expecting Guillaume’s alleged girlfriend to make an appearance. The only person who does know the truth about Tom and Guillaume is the deceased’s hot-tempered beefcake brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal). However, Francis’ grasp on his sanity, not to mention his security in his own sexuality, appear seriously open to question. As the knotty plot unfolds, no single character knows the full truth, so accordingly the audience is always kept on their toes.
With the power dynamics shifting constantly, Dolan does a great job in keeping material fresh that could have easily become stagey; he ensures that the film is a compelling visual, as well as audial, experience. Cinematographer André Turpin helps to keep the atmosphere tense, making great use of wide-open locations in the French countryside which manage to be both spacious and claustrophobic at the same time, while Gabriel Yared’s superbly lush orchestral score is not afraid to go deliciously over-the-top on occasion. Redolent of Hitchcock (Francis’ remodelling of Tom suggests Vertigo), Claude Chabrol and even Francois Ozon, Tom at the Farm is an unpredictable, excellently performed, wickedly funny take on sexual politics. Dolan, it seems, can really do it all.
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'Tom at the farm' is released in Canadian cinemas on 28 March, and UK cinemas on 4 April.