Xavier Dolan in Tom à la ferme
Xavier Dolan’s latest effort, an adaptation of award-winning playwright Michel Marc Bouchard’s Tom à la ferme, is arguably his best film to date.
When it was screened at the Festival du nouveau cinéma in the fall, Cult MTL film critic Alex Rose praised it as, “a triumph of style serving substance that takes its cues from Chabrol and Hitchcock and maintains a fever pitch of unease and suspense from the first frame.”
Rose couldn’t be more right. The unnerving thriller follows Tom (Dolan), who has just lost his boyfriend Guillaume, as he heads out to the country to attend his lover’s funeral, only to find out that his mother (Lise Roy) is unaware of her son’s sexuality and that his brother Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) plans on keeping it a secret — he’s also a total psycho.
“The play was filled with these moments that already spoke to the promise of very violent and thrilling and suspenseful scenes,” says Dolan. “Many things seduced me that were already in the play, many things seduced me that weren’t in the play and that was what actually inspired me to think that I could make this something else — not necessarily something better or worse — just something different, something more cinematic.”
Dolan sent Bouchard a first draft of the screenplay and the pair worked on it together, via email, sending it back and forth with notes and rewrites until they were satisfied with what they could call the official first script.
“I think every experience with every filmmaker is different, especially when they’re adapting material,” says Bouchard. “They have their own point of view and my duty is to understand that point of view… we kept almost all the journey — the end is different — but we kept the journey of what we had in the play. I think it’s great because it was one of the most respectful adaptations of my work.”
“You’ve got to surround yourself and make sure you work with a team of challenging minds,” says Dolan. “People who will tell you whether or not they like your ideas — from that you can leave some and keep some. Michel Marc is very open-minded. He knew many sacrifices had to be made and that some things belong to the theatre/stage media that wouldn’t make the leap. He knew that. We never had a fight about that. He was a great council and I think we worked great together.”
The original play came from an anecdote. A friend of Bouchard’s lost his lover and, just like Tom, decided to seek out his family in the country to discover no one expected him. “It was not as dramatic as it is in Tom,” says Bouchard. “But it’s still a mourning story. It’s one of the worst things in the world. You don’t exist. Worse than that, the relationship never existed. Terrible stuff.”
The result of their combined efforts is an extremely tense film that explores mourning from a darker, more psychological angle. “I really focused on making a movie that would be sort of stressful,” says Dolan. “I just wanted the characters to be psychologically credible, and for the environment to be suffocating. If we achieved that, I’m happy.
The film of course dips into issues around sexuality and denial, as everyone hides the real Guillaume from his mother. “Homophobia is one theme and I would go larger, I would aim a little wider and say intolerance,” says Dolan. “I think that is something absolutely actual and modern, especially if you look at Europe and Russia and Africa — not only towards homosexuals, but towards people who are different. I feel like Europe is taking such a radical turn and I think that the movie fits with its time in that way.”
For Bouchard, when he sees it on screen, the film feels like a continuation or another layer to his original idea. “It’s parallel — the play is still produced,” he says. “So it’s got new life, new readings, other points of view, but it’s the same story.”
Next up for Dolan is Mommy, his fifth film currently in post-production, which will explore the mother and son dynamic.
“It’s different this time,” says Dolan. “There’s a much more precise story than that of I Killed My Mother, which was a coming of age story. Now we have a very socio-political context where a bill has passed that enables parents in distress financially and psychologically to actually legally abandon their behaviourally disordered kids in hospitals. Then there’s a mom, a widow, who inherits full time custody of her son who is in a specialized centre and from one day to another, she’s stuck with him. Although they love each other, they try to make ends meet. She tries to bring him up but he’s a handful and eventually a neighbour, a very mysterious neighbour, chimes in and gives him a hand and helps them try to find a sense of balance, until all hell breaks loose.
“I made up that synopsis right now — I hope it makes sense.” ■
Tom à la ferme is in theatres now