Whenever I hear the term “psychosexual drama,” I think of “The Wrong Man,” Alexandre Rockwell’s segment from 1995’s Four Rooms in which husband Siegfried (David Proval) takes out his jealous aggressions on hotel bellboy Ted (Tim Roth) at gunpoint. Believing Ted has been schtupping his wife Angela (Jennifer Beals), who now sits bound and gagged in the middle of the room, Siegfried proceeds to browbeat – and physically beat – Ted, who knows nothing about them and has never seen Angela before in his life. Ted is broken down, abused, and (in the original screenplay) eventually comes to accept Siegfried as a control freak who’s lost it, eventually finding his way out of the room and out of their lives.
This kind of sexually-fueled anger and jealousy is further explored in director/star Xavier Dolan’s Tom At the Farm (original title: Tom à la ferme) amid similar circumstances. A lot of parallels can be drawn between “The Wrong Man” and this film, which is based on a play by Michel Marc Bouchard, yet Dolan takes a more creepily dramatic approach to the material, rather than the humorous slapstick of Rockwell’s. Combined with a somewhat out-of-place (yet fitting in retrospect) score by Gabriel Yared, Tom At the Farm is a psychosexual drama taken to Hitchcockian heights.
I comment on the score only because Dolan originally meant for this film to be scoreless, its images and diegetic sounds providing the atmosphere necessary to keep the tone of the film foreboding and forbidding. The stage is set with a haunting a capella version of “The Windmills of Your Mind (Les moulins de mon cœur)” from 1968’s The Thomas Crown Affair, and Yared’s score pops in and out like a regular character in the film, highlighting the precarious circumstances in which the titular Tom (Dolan) finds himself in a Bernard Herrmann-like fashion. Yared punctuates these scenes with music which gives an almost Psycho-like feel to a relatively low-key movie, which at the same time feels at odds and in tune with what’s happening to Tom.
Dolan’s imagery starkly emphasizes his character’s remote solitude; he chooses to fill the majority of the film with close-ups of his face, with little focus on backgrounds or anything implying a connection to the outside world or his surroundings. As Tom has driven out to rural Canada from Montreal to attend his boyfriend Guillaume’s funeral, he is seen completely alone in the first portion of the movie, joined later by Guillaume’s mother Agathe (Lise Roy), who has no idea about Tom or his relationship to her dead son.
We quickly and violently find out how much her other son Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) knows about Tom, forcing Tom to behave exactly the way Francis wants in front of Agathe to keep up the appearance of Guillaume being a normal, healthy heterosexual, eventually trapping Tom at the family farm and making him a target for his pent-up hostility. What Francis does to Tom is more like indoctrination or hazing, but there’s a deadly serious side to it; Francis physically brutalizes Tom and blames it on clumsiness when Agathe asks why Tom’s face is bruised.
Agathe, hurting and confused, seems to adopt Tom as a replacement son in Guillaume’s stead, coddling him while treating Francis with indifference, which only enrages Francis more and keeps his humiliations coming. In Agathe, we see a near-naïve ignorance, an unwillingness to see the facts about her two sons. It’s not exactly on the level of The Bad Seed, where murders are committed and a mother covers it up, but more like a mother who sees the world just so and wants to keep her view of it the way it is. Lise Roy’s performance as the torn Agathe deserves recognition, as she masks her pain and regret shallowly below the surface, coming to the fore in gunshot-like outbursts; her barely-there mother’s love for Francis keeps him around, while her more maternal emotions are kept for Tom, showing us how differently she may have treated her real sons as children.
Likewise, through his interactions with Tom, we see how Francis must have treated Guillaume and how he may have been responsible for Guillaume’s sexuality. He tosses Tom around like a ragdoll and makes him dance to his tune (figuratively, also literally in a very telling scene), and where Dolan triumphs is in these heated, everything-but-sexual-intimacy exchanges, using Francis’ inhumanity to demonstrate how much he is at odds with himself and, perhaps, his own sexuality. Francis doesn’t know how to express himself outside of his mother’s deceptively genteel dominance except through violence, but when we get a few peeks behind his savage front, we encounter someone who may not be all he purports to be.
Tom may be the person onscreen 90% of the time, but he’s more of a reflection of what he’s given by love (Agathe) and hate (Francis). Dolan plays him as a meek Stockholm Syndrome victim, doing whatever tasks Francis or Agathe give him with little to no emotion. Like Agathe, Tom projects a casual, detached indifference and doesn’t seem to want to get in the way of anything; however, when Guillaume’s family sinks their claws into him, he has no choice but to be a dutiful whipping boy. Even when he purposely calls Sarah (Évelyne Brochu), Tom and Guillaume’s mutual co-worker whom Guillaume tried to pass off as his girlfriend, he can’t even raise himself up enough to accept her offer to help him get out of there.
With this bizarre triangle of love, hate, and indifference in place, it’s only a matter of time before the film erupts, and Dolan lets us hang on the tension as the pot slowly simmers its way up to an explosive boil. The audience is made to live in fear of Francis’ constant reprisals, with his unpredictability and Gabriel Yared’s score combining to push Tom At the Farm into being a menacing examination of the self, how we either lose or find it, and whether it’s too late to do either.
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