SFF ’14: Xavier Dolan Double Feature

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Tom at the Farm

It’s not a stretch to call Tom at the Farm (Tom à la Ferme) Dolan’s least distinctly Dolanian work. While it’s filled with many of the director’s trademarks (loose plotting, unhurried pace, Mother/son issues, intense characters), it lacks the usual emotional directness that fills Dolan’s best work; attributed perhaps to this marking Dolan’s first adaptation of someone else’s material, working off Michel Marc Bouchard’s play. The story centres on Tom’s visit to the farm of the title to attend the funeral of his recently deceased boyfriend, Guillaume. Upon arriving, Tom (Dolan himself) discovers that not only does Guillaume’s mother (Lise Roy) not realise her son was gay, but Guillaume’s brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) wants to keep it that way, going to great lengths to intimidate Tom into submission.

The less auteurstic aspect of this film actually works in Dolan’s favour as a director. This is easily his most visually restrained picture, trading in his slow-motion music video quirks and his tendencies to use the camera, colours and music to force you into the mindset of his characters, for an approach more focused on atmosphere and dramatic tension. Dolan’s gaze here is at its most objective, allowing the cinematography by André Turpin and the wonderfully evocative score by Gabriel Yared to create an atmosphere that is alternatively curious and brooding, and armrest grabbingly tense.

However it’s the plot that fails Dolan here. The film is never less than engaging, but in an attempt to create a sparse and uneasy, low-key thriller, he’s fashioned a needlessly oblique film where actions and events occur because the script needs to move in a certain direction, rather than brewing naturally from realistic cause-and-effect. Also, the characters on display here are nowhere near as fully realised as in his previous 3 films. Naturally, as a moody, mysterious genre piece, the characters’ motivations aren’t necessarily meant to be predictable and obvious but this is Dolan’s first film where it doesn’t feel like the narrative is simply following the whims of the characters.

For instance, it becomes increasingly unbelievable that Tom doesn’t leave the farm while he has the chance and the occasional jumps in time do nothing to help you track the arc of the characters. The late addition of Evelyne Brochu to the plot as a woman pretending to be Guillaume’s girlfriend adds a much needed jolt and some perspective to the narrative. But at the same time, the circumstances surrounding why she’s at the farm are murky and confusing. All the actors do fine work and Pierre-Yves Cardinal makes a particularly magnetic figure out of Francis, an unhinged and confused man whose relationship to Tom moves in strange and unexpected directions. But they are stuck with characters that are often emotionally nuanced, yet lacking in rationality and consistency.

Ultimately Dolan’s desire to add something different to his body of work – making a genre film – has honed his technical skills while causing him to sacrifice his usual indelible and passionate characters for unconvincing characterisations and contrived plotting.

Overall Rating: 6.5 close ups of Dolan’s face out of 10

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mommy

Mommy

The reining in of some of Dolan’s more idiosyncratic visual quirks in Tom at the Farm has greatly benefited his latest feature Mommy, for which he recently won the Best Director award at Cannes (tied with Godard, natch). This is the sort of film that only Xavier Dolan can make – artful yet searingly raw, melodramatic yet grounded and low-key. Dolan’s success comes from making films that are emotionally open and immense, yet dramatically contained. In his third feature Laurence Anyways, with its 168 minute running time and constantly shifting timelines and locations, he went too far in trying to match the emotional intensity with the vastness of the narrative, leaving a film where the protagonist was shortchanged by the scale of the film. Mommy however, is the near perfect distillation of Dolan’s best filmmaking instincts.

Mommy centres around Diane/Die (Anne Dorval) and her efforts to deal with her troubled son Steve (Antoine-Olivier Pilon). Steve loves his mother deeply but he’s emotionally unstable and has been in and out of youth rehabilitation centres for years. The story kicks into gear once Kyla (Suzanne Clément), a shy but curious neighbour enters their lives after seeing that Die has her hands full with Steve. Together they create a threesome that is equal parts loving and concerning in its closeness and dependancy.

All three main characters are beautifully realised and inhabited. Diane is introduced to the movie via a car crash. She crawls out, swears at the offending driver, then answers her phone as though the car crash was a minor inconvenience. Dorval is fearless, imbuing Die with a larger than life attitude that tries its hardest to shrug off all the shit that piles on top of her. She’s fun and spunky and not afraid to use her sexuality to her advantage. Kyla is more of an enigma. The sort of women who seems incapable of mustering up a sincere smile and who spends her days longingly looking out of the windows. With her meekness and speech impediment, Kyla could have easily turned into a sappy caricature, but Clément (in a complete 180 from her Laurence Anyways character) allows her a dignity and a fire simmering beneath the surface. Finally there’s Steve with his handsome mug and goofy grin. He’s a wild card; cheeky and playful yet dangerous and capable of violence. This allows the film to maintain a certain level of tension whenever he’s around. A highlight of the film takes place at a karaoke bar as Pilon effortlessly moves through Steve’s emotional range from jealousy to pride, passion, embarrassment and finally anger. Steve is ultimately a tragic character, a fun, confident kid betrayed by his ADHD and confused home life.

The film has no real plot to speak of. There is a lawsuit. There is Kyla’s attempts to teach Steve. There is an ongoing thread involving Die’s job hunt. But true to life, the film is more a series of moments and about the growing connection between these three people. There are moments of utter despair and violence but they are buoyed by moments of pure elation. The film’s brightest spot sees Steve skateboarding down the street followed by Die and Kyla on bikes. At one point Steve looks directly at the camera and uses his hands to open the screen up from a 1:1 ratio to the more traditional 16:9 ratio. It’s a glorious moment that almost makes Dolan’s entirely unnecessary decision to shoot the film in such a boxy aspect ratio worth it. Almost. There are many ways Dolan can justify playing with form such as he does with the ratios of Mommy and to a lesser degree Tom at the Farm (which shifts to widescreen in its climax) but to me, great filmmaking should be almost invisible. Shifting ratios just draw attention to themselves and take the viewer out. It’s to the credit of Dolan and cinematographer Turpin’s sense of composition that the film doesn’t suffer too badly from offering such a restricted perspective. But then again Dolan has always tested the limitations of film and it’s his curiosity about the form that makes him such a talent and makes his films fresh and full of life.

Overall Rating: 8.5 karaoke fist fights out of 10

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