Horrors Elsewhere is a recurring column that spotlights a variety of movies from all around the globe, particularly those not from the United States. Fears may not always be universal, but one thing is for sure — a scream is understood, always and everywhere.
Distinct elements found throughout Xavier Dolan’s filmography include strained parent-child relationships, queer desire, and discrimination. While his fourth feature Tom at the Farm seems like a complete detour from his previous dramas, his first genre film still manages to cover all three said themes with gravity and style. The addition of psychological horror only underlines Dolan’s growing discipline as a storyteller and flair for complicated characters.
An immeasurable amount of stories sees people reluctantly returning to their hometowns to mend what is broken or find closure, but Dolan’s character is an absolute stranger to the rural town visited in Tom at the Farm. Rather, he only goes there to pay his respects to the family of Guillaume, the love of his life he recently lost to a car accident. The film’s namesake, a young urbanite with a conspicuous coiffure and matching taste in fashion, arrives at his pastoral destination shortly before the funeral. He stays at a dairy farm with Guillaume’s mother Agathe (Lise Roy), who is in the dark about her son’s sexuality and the exact nature of his relationship with Tom.
That night while sleeping in Guillaume’s old bedroom, Tom is rudely awakened by Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), Agathe’s other son he had no idea even existed. Francis is fully aware of who Tom is, and he threatens him to stay silent about everything so as not to upset his mother. The original plan was for Tom to give a eulogy and then leave after the funeral, but instead of escaping when he has the chance, Tom indefinitely stays at the farm. In his quest to make peace with Guillaume’s death and help his family cope, Tom now ignores various warning signs as he latches onto Francis.
Dolan’s adaptation of Michel Marc Bouchard’s play Tom à la ferme differs in both the overall tone and ultimate outcome. Reviews of the stage show pick up on the dark humor in everything, but the filmmaker curbs the comedy for the most part. As a result, viewers are left with an austere display of abuse and festering anguish. Dolan and co-writer Bouchard plot a different course than the one taken in the source material, yet the address remains the same. The play and film each analyze how three disparate people each handle a staggering weight of grief.
The foremost conflict in the movie is between Tom and Francis. From their first meeting, it is clear who the dominant and submissive characters are. Wherever Tom is vulnerable and unsuspecting, be that in the shower or in a restroom stall, Francis suddenly appears as a reminder he controls him. The play has Francis punch and torture Tom into submission — Tom is dangled over a ditch full of dead cows at one point — whereas in the movie, Cardinal’s interpretation is more restrained. The calculating Francis knows he can kill Tom with little effort, but eventually, it is not his fists that make Tom reconsider leaving.
As with most of Dolan’s other films, characters grapple with homophobia. Francis uses his mother’s apparent intolerance as a way to justify his own bias. It never crosses Agathe’s mind Tom could be more than Guillaume’s coworker and friend; she has been led to believe he had a girlfriend named Sarah. This is the work of Francis — he keeps a photograph of his brother kissing this Sarah person on him at all times not necessarily for lascivious reasons, but because it is the only picture of adult Guillaume he has — who created the lie and now wants Tom to play along. Francis presses Tom to explain to his mother Sarah’s absence at the funeral, to which Tom then reworks his unused eulogy on the fly and passes it off as Sarah’s message to Agathe. The mother does not see through the veil because this helps maintain the illusion. The play, on the other hand, shows Agathe learning the truth she likely knew all along on some level.
Meanwhile, Francis’ homophobia is as overt as it is complex. He thinks hiding Tom and Guillaume’s relationship is a way of protecting his mother, but all he is really doing is serving his own agenda. At first, Francis browbeats and bruises Tom into behaving accordingly, yet as time goes by, he comes to feel something other than contempt. It is not certain there is a sexual attraction, seeing as the reasons they are drawn to one another are not identical. For Francis, he firstly sees Tom as a companion who does not yet know about his past. The other townsfolk avoid Agathe’s oldest son or look at him in fear, and Tom has no idea why. That kind of nescience is appealing to a pariah like Francis. The fact that Cardinal’s character does everything in his power to keep Dolan’s from leaving or learning why Francis is so ostracized is evidence of his desperation for kinship.
The play shows Francis and Tom being physically intimate at times; specifically, they kiss, embrace, and sleep side by side. The movie, however, does away with this occasional tenderness in favor of more sustained aggression and innuendo. As Francis pins Tom down upon his first attempt at leaving, he spits into his mouth to establish dominance and force intimacy. Then in the iconic tango scene inside the barn, Francis and Tom’s bodies become so entangled, they fail to notice Agathe standing in the doorway and listening to her resentful son’s tirade. In what is perhaps the most charged moment between them, Tom now welcomes Francis to wrap his hands firmly around his throat, begging for him to squeeze harder and harder. Francis feels pleasure as well and even grants Tom control over the situation, but his excitement dies as soon as Tom says Francis smells and sounds like his brother. The disappointment writ large on Francis’ face, he releases Tom and walks away.
The arrival of Sarah (Evelyne Brochu) is where the movie behaves more like a thriller after slowly churning out suspense. Tom calls in a favor, and Sarah comes to the farm to appease Agathe. Francis is taken aback by her presence, but that does not stop him from accosting her both physically and verbally. Unlike Francis though, she threatens him back. Tension swells as the ruse falls apart, and Tom finally learns why Francis is the town’s outcast. Now knowing the gruesome truth and evading the same possible fate, Tom makes a run for it in the anxious and indeterminate finale.
At several points in the film, the aspect ratio becomes more and more severe and tight to convey a gamut of emotions. That sort of audacious filmmaking is partly why Dolan is so deservingly regarded. Tom at the Farm is a consummate display of his talent both in front of and behind the camera, and it demonstrates his equal flexibility with arthouse and genre stories. André Turpin delivers stunning cinematography, and Gabriel Yared’s simple yet uneasy score channels Bernard Herrmann.
Dolan isolates the best parts of vintage noir and repurposes them in this utterly subtextual thriller. The wunderkind director and actor puts himself in the place of blonde, imperiled women of yesteryear and gets lost in a layered and psychosexual story. The glaring violence and puzzling homophobia are explored with frank curiosity and deftness. Although “Hitchcockian” is arbitrarily thrown around these days, no term is more flattering or applicable when describing a tour de force like Tom at the Farm.