Thursday, January 1, 2015

2014 Top Ten List #7 Tom at the Farm (Tom à la ferme)

















TOM AT THE FARM (Tom à la ferme)    A-           
Canada  France  (105 mi)  2013  d: Xavier Dolan 

Round like a circle in a spiral
Like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning
On an ever-spinning reel
Like a snowball down a mountain
Or a carnival balloon
Like a carousel that's turning
Running rings around the moon 

Like a clock whose hands are sweeping
Past the minutes on its face
And the world is like an apple
Whirling silently in space
Like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind

Like a tunnel that you follow
To a tunnel of its own
Down a hollow to a cavern
Where the sun has never shone
Like a door that keeps revolving
In a half-forgotten dream
Or the ripples from a pebble
Someone tosses in a stream
 

Like a clock whose hands are sweeping
Past the minutes on its face
And the world is like an apple
Whirling silently in space
Like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind

Keys that jingle in your pocket
Words that jangle in your head
Why did summer go so quickly?
Was it something that I said?
Lovers walk along a shore
And leave their footprints in the sand
Was the sound of distant drumming
Just the fingers of your hand?
Pictures hanging in a hallway
Or the fragment of a song
Half-remembered names and faces
But to whom do they belong?
When you knew that it was over
Were you suddenly aware
That the autumn leaves were turning
To the color of her hair?

Like a circle in a spiral
Like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning
On an ever-spinning reel
As the images unwind
Like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind

The Windmills of Your Mind (Dusty Springfield) - YouTube (3:52), by Michel Legrand, initially featured in Norman Jewison’s THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (1968), sung by Noel Harrison

Once more, Dolan continues to dazzle and impress, though here in an altogether different style than anything he’s ever done before, adapting someone else’s work for the first time, a play by Canadian playwright Michel Marc Bouchard that he co-writes with the author for the screen, creating a much more accessible film experience, a Hitchcock suspense drama that is more conventionally restrained and not nearly as experimental as his others, yet it has still been equally ignored by American distributors which, along with his brilliant first two films, were simply never released, even on DVD, until many years afterwards.  Despite consistently winning awards at either Cannes or Venice for all but one of his five films, Dolan remains almost unheard of in America, and this for a director who has just turned 25.  All of his films are stylistically impressive, where they boldly kick a complacent movie audience out of their usual comfort zone with stunning cinematography, audacious camera movement, novelesque detail, naturalistic acting, and brilliant musical scores, where year after year his films stand out from the rest for his youthful energy, extraordinary artistry, and striking originality.  Nonetheless, despite being on the festival circuit last year, this film does not have a distributor in the United States, so when it was being shown at the Cinetopia International Film Festival 200 miles away in Ann Arbor, Michigan, one had to jump at the opportunity, where it was screened as a non-Blu-Ray DVD in an old, run-down theater to a half-filled house as a midnight feature. 

The most understated of all the Dolan films, yet highly personalized, where the overriding power of the film all happened in the recent past, where the reverberations from a death play out onscreen, taken from someone else's play, with Dolan's imprint all over it.  It doesn't have the dazzle factor of his other films, as it's not nearly so visually expressive, yet it packs a punch, even if it's expressed with restraint in a kind of unfathomable situation.  Reminiscent of the altered psychological disorientation of German filmmaker Christian Petzold in films like YELLA (2007), JERICHOW (2008), and BARBARA (2012), it's similar in the way it focuses on internalizations, yet uses visual cues to indicate an imbalance, where the world is not as it seems.  Both directors seem to thrive on psychological repression, though the German director is far more minimalist, while Dolan allows a bit of Sirkian melodrama to creep in.  Part of the film’s intrigue is how the backstory remains at a distance throughout, where bits and pieces surface, but most remains hidden from view, even by the end, where the downbeat tone feels like it’s picking up right where Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005) left off, in a searingly despairing sequence where the surviving partner of a deceased gay lover goes to visit his partner’s family that he has never met for the funeral, where in this case the 25-year old son, Guillaume, never acknowledged he was gay, but instead made up a lie that he was seeing a girlfriend in Montreal.  While this eventually becomes known, it’s not at the outset, as instead the director uses a dual track narration in the opening sequence, where we hear a soaring, anthem-like, a cappela rendition by French-speaking Kathleen Fortin singing Michel Legrand’s  “The Windmills of Your Mind” Xavier Dolan -Tom à la ferme- "Les moulins de mon cœur" Michel Legrand. YouTube (2:22), which plays as Tom (Xavier Dolan) is driving from Montreal to a rather bleak part of Northern Quebec’s rural flatlands, while simultaneously, rapid thoughts are written on a napkin that lyrically describe his emotional devastation.    

With a murky opening set in a hovering fog, Tom arrives alone at a farmhouse, finding no one there, but lets himself inside where he sits asleep at the kitchen table, beautifully set up with interior shots, when suddenly someone is inside staring at him.  The starkness of the sudden appearance feels like an awakening, or an apparition, allowing the real story to begin.  Lise Roy is Agathe, Guillaume’s aging mother, who is obviously surprised by this intruder, but becomes hospitable once she learns he’s a friend of her son, remaining oblivious throughout about their true relationship, and ominously puts Tom in her son’s bedroom, seen sleeping with an article of Guillaume’s clothing next to his face.  But Tom is awoken with a fright, as he’s assaulted by someone’s hands around his throat, where this is Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), the bullying older brother who actually runs the farm, who threateningly tells Tom how it’s going to be, that no secrets will be revealed, that they will play along with the fiction so as not to upset his mother.  For the rest of the film, Francis hovers over Tom like a dog that won’t release a bone, slapping him around at will, subjecting him to continual abuse, literally making his life as difficult as possible.  Agathe, however, couldn’t be happier by the visit, though she’s seething with anger when she learns the girlfriend is not showing up for the funeral.  She asks Tom to offer a few words about her son at the funeral service, the same thoughts that were narrated at the outset by his blurry notes scribbled on a napkin, but when the time arises, he’s so overwhelmed by the violent intimidations of Francis that he’s afraid to say anything.  He does choose a musical selection, however, which strangely begins in the middle of the song during a heightened crescendo, Mario Pelchat’s “Tears in the Rain,” Mario Pelchat --Pleurs dans la pluie - YouTube (5:32).  Due to his rude welcoming, Tom heads out of town after the funeral, happy to be rid of the “hick redneck farmer,” but has second thoughts, knowing he would hate himself for running away, as his lover’s thoughts remain foremost in his mind, believing he can endure anything, even this fiction that denies his own implicit part in his lover’s life.  Agathe expresses disappointment that Tom didn’t speak, but Dolan curiously allows Tom to express his own feelings through Sara, the fictional girlfriend, using a free flowing, stream-of-conscious emotional release that sounds more and more like himself, even expressing graphic X-rated sexual content, a stunning turn of events with Francis staring bullets right through him at the kitchen table ready to pounce at any moment, but Agathe is defiantly unashamed and breaks out laughing, “Sara’s quite the little whore, isn’t she?”

Francis is impressed with Tom’s dramatic revelations, how he kept to the guidelines of the established fiction, and actually introduces him to the chores of the farm, admittedly hard work, getting your feet muddy and your hands dirty, where Tom becomes quite the farmhand in no time, though delivering a calf brings back a rush of memories, where he’s assaulted by the vividness of his recollections in much the same way that Francis continues to inflict punishment.  There’s a particularly brutal scene in the middle of a cornfield that leaves him battered and bruised, where the devotion to his dead lover is a horrifyingly painful exhibition, much like the masochistic extremes that Emily Watson endures to please her paralyzed lover in BREAKING THE WAVES (1996), yet there is also tenderness reflected in a scene where Francis and Tom dance the tango in the barn, reflecting the repressed homosexuality of Francis, where a guy with sociopathic tendencies becomes almost human for a moment, where one can see that the torment he inflicts onto others is a mirror into his own broken soul, making him a man who can’t live with himself, who takes it out on others by dominating them physically and inflicting pain.  In a completely unexpected turn of events, Tom calls his friend Sara (Évelyne Brochu), the photocopy girl and real-life friend who is the subject of all the imaginary embellishments.  Dolan adds a curious element of suspicion and dread about what goes on at the farmhouse, as people in town make reference to this dysfunctional family as if they are concealing an ax-murderer, where no one wants to go near the house itself, as the cab driver leaves Sara a healthy walk away.  It’s interesting to see how she fits into her own fictionalized story, driven to tell the truth, but not willing to get pulverized by the psychopathic brother.  Agathe, of course, is thrilled by her appearance, but disappointed she doesn’t reflect more sorrow from the loss.  She is shocked to discover Tom has literally transformed into a world of make believe, subject to delirious ramblings, where he’s completely under the thumb of a delusional force, as if hypnotized.  Perhaps the strangest turn of events is the way Dolan uses Hitchcockian methods of horror to express the psychological shifts taking place, where in one scene Tom actually separates from his face and hair, where he’s literally coming apart and losing himself before our watchful eyes.  Dolan also changes the aspect ratio throughout the film, becoming narrowly constricted while also widening to super widescreen, perhaps reflecting the elasticity of the fluctuating emotional states.  The musical score by Gabriel Yared is equally hysterical, reflecting an emotional imbalance through dissonance and shrieking strings.  Because of the minimalist interpretation, leaving out pertinent details, the film is layered in ambiguities, where the motives never become clear, and where there is no real resolution, as the underlying horror lingers well after the film is over.  Of interest, both Lise Roy and Évelyne Brochu performed their respective roles in the theatrical version of the play. 

The overriding darkness of the film is quite unusual, reminiscent of Claire Denis’s equally gloomy portrait of a slow, poisoned, self-destruction in 2013 Top Ten List #6 Bastards (Les Salauds), yet also Alain Guiraudie’s gay-themed, sexually explicit Stranger By the Lake (L'inconnu du lac) (2013), another Hitchcock style thriller that examines a homoerotic attraction to danger, exhibiting a kind of precarious self-loathing where one surrenders body and soul, even potentially one’s life, for the dangerous chance at love with someone whose sexual charm is their unpredictability along with the criminal aspects of their personality, someone capable of murder, for instance, who feels no remorse, where loving them is accepting the conditions that you must live in a self-imposed blindness.  It is this illusory emotional void that Dolan taps into, where you literally lose yourself for a chance at love, but are then double crossed by the unexpected turn of events when your partner dies, and you’re left with an unfillable emptiness.  It’s not shocking that Tom would have a sexual attraction to the brutal behavior of Francis, but it becomes all the more intriguing as an extension of his overwhelming love and grief for his lost lover.  Brothers have similarities, their smell, the sound of their voice, their shared rooms, where the allure can be irresistible, despite the sadistic aspects that come with the territory.  This back and forth between fluctuating (sometimes invented) scenarios and conflicting emotions guides us through the film, where one has an unmistakable need for connection, irrespective of the consequences.  The arrival of Sara alters the landscape with Francis, where their base physical love/hate attraction to the opposite sex allows Tom some cover, a moment to himself, which plays out in what is arguably the best scene in the film, where Tom sits alone at a bar in town and hears, in descriptive detail from the bartender (Manuel Tadros), an event out of the brother’s obscure past that has chilling consequences on the present, a blisteringly intense moment that makes one wonder whether Tom could actually have been part of this living memory, where truth and fiction collide in establishing emotional truth, where everything that came before leads to a new understanding in the form of an unexpected revelation.  The film has a Sirkian thread of melodrama about it where the surface reality clouds a stronger, unseen force, where the murky waters of being gay is the underlying context throughout, especially the unmitigated violence that goes along with it, though this is never an acknowledged aspect of the storyline that deals more with issues of grief, anguish, death, deceit, and disillusionment.  The way Dolan creates a psychological horror thriller out of being gay is starkly unique and original, like Fassbinder’s epic BERLIN ALEXANDERPLATZ (1980), where the presence of Guillaume hovers over every shot of the film, like a haunting specter, and Dolan, as he does in every film, takes us places we have never been before, where this is mostly under the surface, displaying a bit of incensed anger at the world (and particularly the United States in its violent anti-gay phobia) in Rufus Wainwright’s song over the end credits, Rufus Wainwright - Going To A Town YouTube (4:06). 

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