Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan, at 26, is known for his combination of youth and prolificacy, with a body of five intriguing films under his belt that boast both intense performance and formal daring. His most recent film, “Mommy,” is an unhinged melodrama shot in a 1:1 screen ratio (square, like an Instagram photo).
Dolan’s trademark verve is also on display in “Tom at the Farm,” which he made before “Mommy,” but is only now making its American debut. It’s a claustrophobic drama that unfolds like a thriller, although its characters are so bizarre that sympathizing with them is difficult.
Dolan stars as Tom, an ad executive who leaves Montreal to visit the childhood home of his boyfriend, Guillaume, who has died suddenly. There, Tom meets Agathe (Lise Roy), Guillaume’s grieving mother, and they develop a delicate rapport. She does not know Guillaume was gay, however, and Guillaume’s deranged brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) — who does know, yet has lied to her about it — forces Tom to maintain the ruse that he and Guillaume were mere friends. This subterfuge could be material for a sitcom, but instead Tom loses his sense of self, developing a form of Stockholm syndrome defined by the tension between him and Francis.
Despite the setting’s banality, the farm is a foreboding place, and Tom cannot find any respite from Francis’s psychological abuse. Adapting the film from a play by Michel Marc Bouchard, who shares a screenwriting credit, Dolan strips his characters of self-awareness, leaving only raw, sexually charged histrionics in its place. Dolan also returns to the unorthodox framing of “Mommy” at one point. When Tom is beaten by Francis, the frame narrows so that it only takes up a narrow sliver of screen.
“Tom at the Farm” offers little relief from the gnawing suspense among its few characters, and does not explain their motivations, either. It is unclear whether fear or boredom leads to Tom’s eventual escape, and Dolan’s ambivalence over his main character’s mental state means we care little about him, too.
Zilberman is a freelance writer.
Unrated. At Angelika Pop-Up. Contains coarse language, violence and adult situations.
In French with subtitles. 102 minutes.