Halloween is for the dead, and that now includes, by his own admission, Xavier Dolan’s career. Once the preternaturally gifted brat of the art house world, gracing thousands Tumblr pages in the 2010s, having debuted his first feature film I Killed My Mother at the Cannes Film Festival when he was 18, in the Directors Fortnight Section, the now 34 year old Quebecois announced in El Pais that he was stepping away from filmmaking. Tired of pouring his energy, he said, “I no longer have the desire or strength to commit myself to a project for two years that barely anyone sees. I put too much passion into it to have so many disappointments. It makes me wonder if my filmmaking is bad, and I know it’s not.”
This, despite all the laurels he received from the international film world, which included a Queer Palme for Laurence Anyways, the Jury Prize for Mommy which he shared with Jean-Luc Godard, and the Grand Prix for It’s Only the End of the World, not to mention a handful of Cesar wins. Here lies Xavier Dolan, millennial rascal and erstwhile bestie of Jessica Chastain.
Tom at the Farm, Dolan’s fourth feature film and one of the only movies to not premiere at Cannes (it made its debut at Venice in 2013), suitably enough begins with death. “A part of me has died,” it begins, blue in bleeding on the napkin before he gives up and says “fuck this”. Dolan’s three previous films had made enough of a splash in certain circles, but had at once sowed enough resentment in critics’ minds, several accusing him of pretension, aesthetic pilfering from the likes of Almodovar and Godard, and taunting that his films contained an obnoxious quality. Meanwhile, he had failed to make much of a dent in the North American market. I Killed My Mother had been picked up by Kino Lorber, his sophomore feature Heartbeats had been released by Sundance Selects, a subsidiary of IFC Films, and Laurence Anyways, despite a stamp of approval from Gus van Sant, had only managed to be grabbed up by Breaking Glass Pictures, a specialty distributor of mid softcore queer movies. Although Mommy would signal a new phase of his career, edging into, but not quite smashing through, “international breakout” status, Tom at the Farm’s early auto-obit (“Today, a part of me has died”, we see someone write), paired with the image of an angel hanging from a rearview mirror, gives Dolan’s most retrained work the air of someone pointing a middle finger with ferocity and saying “piss off”.
Certainly one of the curious things about Dolan’s career is the way he always vacillated between not giving a shit about what anyone said and caring deeply about it. He’s just old enough to have witnessed the internet’s emergence as a repository for snarky opinions. Thus, if his previous work up till then was a mixture of millennial pretension and passion, as well as a relative disregard for the accusations of such, Tom at the Farm is a sharp turn, a movie filled with spite and seemingly a pointed attempt to prove he was more than just an enfant terrible this side of AOL Instant Messenger. Where I Killed My Mother, Heartbeats, and Laurence Anyways are florid and bombastic and revel in an adolescent too muchness, Tom at the Farm is white knuckle clenched around a tightness of form. It’s spare where his other work is excessive, quiet where he has been loud. Simmering beneath a relatively petulant attitude is a sincere (and perhaps not untrue, especially in 2013) belief that Dolan’s inability to crossover as a filmmaker had something to do with homophobia.
Such a perspective would be easy to dismiss if the tension and barbed subtext were aimed solely at some abstract idea of America (which is in the film), but, ever the wunderkind, Dolan is more productive a filmmaker and artist (yeah, I said it) than one would like to give credit to. Instead, all that fury, at least in the context of the movie, is directed inward.
Based on Michel Marc Bouchard’s play Tom à la ferme, Dolan’s Tom arrives at the bucolic of his late lover only to discover that the surviving family members, the mother Agathe (Lise Roy) and brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) did not know their bereaved was queer. Thus, everyone is grieving in slanted ways, unable to express the totality of their loss and left, instead, to imagine replacements for their sadness.
Dolan’s mop of hair isn’t clean and pure bleach but rather unkempt, yellowing, piss colored and and frail like the reeds surrounding the farm. He’s a Hitchcock blonde, supported by the film’s Bernard Hermann-esque score by Gabriel Yared, in the middle of nowhere, with the toxicity of a cruel older brother breathing down his neck. But maybe he likes it after all. If Tippi Hedren brought those birds to town as a harbinger, then surely Tom is bringing a little bit of ambivalence about masculinity, taking shape in Francis’ cruelty.
Their sadomasochistic relationship is more refined in the micro, each using one another as an erotic projection of the loss of control: over a lover, over a brother, over a life. It’s a persona swap movie, where identities merge, not with the two central characters, as in Persona and Mulholland Drive, but in the absence of someone.
Dolan shows the scale of the nowhereness, the wide open spaces of quasi-American farmland as an epicenter of obliterated identity, dead before it’s had the chance to express itself or grow. Hence the stunted, school bully meets bouncer violence from Francis. Driving away after the funeral, Tom calls them inbred rednecks, screaming to no one, “You’re on your own, farm boy!” Overhead, there’s nowhere to go. And with that violence also comes an erotic energy, swirling in on itself, right before it’s about to combust.
Some of this self-loathing, drawn towards the worst kind of men, also simmers with a resentment towards, extra-textually, Dolan’s own inability to become as much a darling of US audiences as international ones. Was he kneecapped because his reference points, and the way in which they were inflected in his work, were “too gay”? The brash color stories ripped from All About My Mother and Far From Heaven (itself a riff on Douglas Sirk), the fake adoration for Godard when really My Own Private Idaho spoke to a subterranean loneliness conjoined with a voracious consumption of media, the constant use of music by The Knife. Where his previous films burst at the seams with international pop music, Tom at the Farm only sparingly picks from a French language version of Michel LeGrand’s “The Windmills of Your Mind”, “Santa Maria” by the Gotan Project (also featured in the remake of Shall We Dance? Starring J Lo!), “Sunglasses at Night” by Corey Hart, and, as a crucial kicker, a song by Rufus Wainwright.
Dolan took note of a quote from the play that never made it into the film, but is undoubtedly embedded into the movie: “Before we learn how to love, we learn to lie.” It’s not only germain given the masculinity performances on display here — gruff, gay, wimp, king, slave, lover, enemy — but also on the terms of how we lie about what we love. This menacing meanness is hot, sweaty and sadistic. It’s a matter of figuring out how long you still want to say yes to it, yes to the game. But Dolan never lied to us. That was the problem. And so he lost.