Film Review: TOM AT THE FARM: why grief should be a private thing

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Canadian French Language cinema is undergoing something of a renaissance. It’s been a while since Denys Arcand made a movie, but the void has been more than filled by Denis Villeneuve (INCENDIES) and 24 year old wunderkind actor-director Xavier Dolan (LAURENCE ANYWAYS). Whilst Villeneuve has succumbed to the lure of Hollywood – his American thriller PRISONERS was a critical and commercial hit last autumn – Dolan has stayed put, perhaps because he makes gay themed movies and wouldn’t be welcomed by Hollywood in any case. If Todd Haynes can now only make HBO mini-series (MILDRED PIERCE) what is there for him?

TOM AT THE FARM (TOM À LA FERME) is for Dolan the equivalent of a ‘quota quickie’. After the three hour cross dressing epic, LAURENCE ANYWAYS, Dolan tried and failed to set up a bigger project, THE DEATH AND LIFE OF JOHN F. DONOVAN.  TOM AT THE FARM is something altogether smaller. Based on a play by Michel Marc Bouchard, it tells the story of Tom (Dolan) who attends the funeral of his former lover. His lover’s mother, Agathe (Lise Roy) has a farm but Tom wasn’t told he had a brother, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) a man with an extremely violent temperament. Francis knew his brother was gay but he doesn’t want his mother to know. As far as she is concerned, the dead brother had a girlfriend, Sara. Agathe can’t understand why she doesn’t attend the funeral.

TOM AT THE FARM is essentially a three hander, though Sara (Evelyne Brochu) does turn up at the end; she is part of Tom’s exit strategy. Except that Tom can’t bring himself to leave. He is threatened and subsequently injured by Francis, but he develops a form of sado-masochistic love. Moreover, Tom throws himself into farming chores; at the farm he can be the bringer of life.

To Dolan’s great credit, TOM AT THE FARM never betrays its theatrical origins. It succeeds as a thriller. You want Tom to escape and after the church service in which he fails to deliver his speech but instead plays a piece of music, he drives off leaving some of his possessions. He returns to the farm ill-advisedly and things just get worse.

Not only does Francis know his brother was gay, but he is almost certainly gay himself. He strikes out as a means of suppressing his own sexuality, but he also dances the tango with Tom in a barn; the surprise is that Agathe sees them but says nothing. Does she believe her son is straight or is she just waiting to be told otherwise? It isn’t entirely clear. One thing is certain: Francis is a human pressure cooker. At least Sara stands up to him.

In its final moments, the film becomes too much like a proper thriller for my liking. I didn’t entirely believe that Francis would go over the edge. For the most part it is a skilfully edgy study of grief and desire. There is a strong bar scene in which Tom discovers the identity of a young man who was ejected from church; as it takes place, you sense something bad is happening to Sara. For much of its length, it doesn’t seem like a genre movie; the French version of ‘Windmills of your Mind’ over the opening credits certainly disorientates you.   By the end, you are not entirely sure of the significance of staying with Tom as he drives back to the city, a journey shown over the end credits.

Reviewed at Soho Screening Rooms, 18:30, Wednesday 15 January 2014

About the author


Independent film critic who just wants to witter on about movies every so often. Very old (by Hollywood standards).

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