Posts Tagged ‘Xavier Dolan’

Film: “Tom at the Farm”

August 24, 2015
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Xavier Dolan in “Tom at the Farm”

I find it interesting to compare this film, by 26-year old French-Canadian wunderkind Xavier Dolan, who co-wrote, directed and starred in it, with The Gift, which I reviewed last week. The Gift is a clever connect-the-dots psychological thriller about a revenge scheme for a past crime. The characters react to events in simple, unambiguous terms. They have secrets, but there are no hidden conflicts that slow the action, or that pile murk onto the characters’ motivation. It’s just good shallow melodrama, and satisfying on those terms.

I preface this review with that observation because Tom at the Farm, for all of its skill, nuanced performances and intriguing relationships, fails to satisfy because it lacks clarity and simplicity, or just the things the other film excelled in. But I think Dolan is still an adventurous and original filmmaker, as I noted in my review of Mommy (2/3/2015), which was made the year before this film.

The story concerns Tom (Dolan), a young man from Montreal whose male lover, Guillaume, had died in an accident. He has come to the farm where Guillaume grew up for the funeral. There he meets Guillaume’s mother, Agathe, (Lise Roy) who did not know of her son’s homosexuality, and his older brother, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal). Francis, a hulking and violent man of 30, threatens Tom if he reveals his true relationship with Guillaume. He has lied to his mother about his brother’s sexuality for years, to the point of inventing a girlfriend for him named Sara. In fact, Agathe is furious that Sara did not come for the funeral.

The rest of the film concerns the relationship of these three people. A fourth character (played by Evelyne Brochu), a girl summoned by Tom to pretend to be Sara, also enters the film, but briefly.Twisty and sexually charged, the story maintains interest, but at a sloggy pace, until its melodramatic conclusion. I just never bought into it. Francis is clearly a repressed homosexual, in violent denial. Tom’s own ambivalence –  he is frightened of Francis, but is also powerfully attracted to him – is another dominant theme. But we’re way ahead of Dolan in “catching on” to this, and several “surprise” revelations, late in the story, are just literary touches that lack organic integrity.

As with Mommy, the film reveals Dolan’s fascination with people thrown together into makeshift families. There’s certainly rich dramatic material there. But Tom at the Farm never engages his strengths. Although shorter than Mommy, it plays longer. However, I certainly expect this fascinating young talent to catch fire again.

Film: “Mommy”

February 3, 2015
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left to right: Ann Dorval, Antoine-Olivier Pilon and Suzanne Clement

This French language Canadian film, the fifth feature from wunderkind Xavier Dolan, now 26, is both an emotionally affecting experience and an ordeal. For over two and a quarter hours you’re pulled into the lives of three tortured individuals, but the beauty almost makes it worth the pain. It begins with Diane, nicknamed Die (Ann Dorval), a 40-something widow, picking up her 15-year-old son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon) from a youth facility. He is being kicked out because he set fire to the place, injuring another boy. Blond, with a misleadingly angelic face, Steve is at war with society in general, but really with anything he imagines will distract Die, or “Mommy”, from total devotion to his needs. What mother and son have in common is disdain for the rules of society, the foulest language you can imagine and a penetrating intelligence which they both use, in their own way, to manipulate others. But Die is at least able to focus on basic needs, finding work as a translator and maintaining a home for Steve and herself. Steve has no such inclination. He will ride his skateboard, play loud music and shoplift when the mood strikes him. After Die tries to set him straight, he blows up and nearly strangles her.

So far, it’s the setup for a familiar dramatic conflict, but with exceptional acting. What drives the rest of the film, however, is quite original. Living next door is a married couple and young daughter. The wife, Kyla (Suzanne Clement), is about Die’s age and looks very much like her. But she is demure and withdrawn, in total contrast to Die’s brazen, lower class demeanor. She says she is a teacher “on sabbatical”, but this is never explained. Yet, after a painful and sometimes violent transition period, the three of them bond into a kind of makeshift family unit, with Kyla home-tutoring Steve while Die gets jobs for expenses. This section is the heart of the film, and it works because Dolan gets performances of such fragile intimacy from his actors that you actually believe in their relationship. A crucial scene is of the three of them dancing while preparing a meal in the kitchen; you sense that beneath the joyful abandon is an awareness that their only chance of survival is a total support for each other. Yet we continue to watch with dread, knowing that Steve’s unyielding demand for Die’s love will destroy their hopes.

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Our expectations are fulfilled, and then some. The climax shows Die and Kyla picking up Steve from the hospital after a self-destructive act. Die says she has to pee, but she pulls into a parking lot near a fortress-like building, which is strange. Steve, still dazed from medication, fails to see what’s coming. The next scene, brilliantly edited, whips the camera back and forth to each of them, at distant locations in the parking lot. Both women have breakdowns while Steve struggles with the attendants, who need to use a taser to immobilize him.

Rarely will you see actors pushed to such emotional extremes and yet, not once, do you sense an “actorish” moment. But it only succeeds because the depth of their relationship is the story; we know how much it pains Die and Kyle to do what they did, but we also accept that they had no choice.

As with some other quality films I’ve seen recently, the screenplay is overstuffed and unresolved. A fantasy of Steve having a normal life – including marriage and a child – is unnecessary, and a scene in a karaoke bar is poorly done. The circumstances of Kyla’s depression are never explained, but Clement’s subtly shaded performance overcomes this lapse.

A final word: There’s been criticism of Dolan’s use of a 1:1 ratio screen size as a distracting affectation. I think it intensifies the action, lending power to the more emotional scenes. But whatever you think of it, it’s odd that one of the most honored films of the year, Birdman, gets only praise for a different gimmick: following the film’s action with only two actual cuts for its entire two-hour running time. The camera swoops around talented actors playing clichéd characters in dozens of New York locations for no purpose whatsoever. And Inarritu gets the Golden Globe screenplay award! Go figure.


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