The label ‘wunderkind’ seems to be thrown around quite lightly these days, but it doesn’t quite achieve its full meaning unless it’s appropriated to a certain 24-year old Québécois filmmaker. With already four artistically credible films under his belt, multi-hyphenate Xavier Dolan puts the hippest of hipsters to shame and the rest of us under-thirties look underachieving (I gaze at the mirror and think Dolan, you hot bastard), quickly becoming one of the world’s most fascinating young directors before James Franco could even mouth the word ‘art’. His follow-up to his emotional masterpiece Laurence Anyways is the superlative Tom at the Farm, which is less barnyard drama as the title suggests but more psychological thriller that recalls the works of Alfred Hitchcock and Claude Chabrol, spiced up with a startling sexual politics that remind us of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr Ripley. The comparisons are not without justification – Dolan consciously channels Psycho and Vertigo through the family histrionics here, involving a psychotically deranged, brutish son playing as existential captive under a domineering, grief-stricken mother, while a sweepingly dramatic Bernard Hermann-esque score swells in the backdrop. The protagonist city-slicker Tom, meanwhile, is very much a Dolan creation. He locates this peroxide blonde bohemian deep in tragedy, turning up in the family’s doorstep with an emotional weight heavier than his physical luggage – the death of his boyfriend.
The titular farm itself is an apt metaphor for cultural isolation and sexual repression, as the film steadily transforms into a fascinating power struggle between Tom and Francis, the deceased boyfriend’s dangerously charismatic brother. Here, Dolan weaves some rather superb, sexually suggestive study of sadomasochism, as Tom tentatively becomes victim to Francis’ psychologically questionable schematics. Moments of intense chemistry between the two men often generate some of the most electric game of seduction you’ll see in cinema this year, as the deeper Tom falls into Francis’ clutches, the more complex his Stockholm syndrome reaction becomes. And when we expect for the proceedings to dip into full-blown exploitative territory, Dolan holds things back, all the more remarkably restrained for leaving some to our imaginations. It’s never really spelt out whether Francis is actually homophobic or a repressed homosexual himself, making the interplay even more deeply fascinating.
Stylistically, this holds its own compared to all of Dolan’s previous efforts, but viewed from a distant perspective, Tom at the Farm is undoubtedly his most controlled, most astute work, not so much abandoning visual flamboyance entirely but rather using his style to serve the increasingly dark narrative. Colours have been seeped out of the frame, the farm is photographed with muted dreariness, only intensifying the grief that hangs over the entire picture. But when Dolan uses his cinematic tricks, expect flourishes – his love for aspect ratios is suitably demonstrated here, narrowing his frame down to Cinemascope during the film’s most suspenseful moments, exacerbating the protagonist’s entrapment and claustrophobia. Matched by extremely well-defined performances, from Dolan’s vulnerability to Pierre-Yves Cardinal’s magnetic, unhinged presence and ultimately Lise Roy’s hauntingly delusional mother kept in the dark about his son’s homosexuality, Tom at the Farm is a package of postmodern cinema that shows us less but suggests a great deal more.
This review has been republished from the BFI London Film Festival 2013 coverage.