The day after Tom (Xavier Dolan) arrives at the childhood home of his recently deceased lover, Guillaume, under the slate-gray skies of a lonely territory, a swaggering, muscular torso comes up behind him and places two hands on the back of his chair. Hovering there for a moment, face beyond the edges of the frame, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), Guillaume’s brother, assumes the posture of pure threat, tempting and repellent at once. The scene is, in essence, a microcosm of Tom at the Farm, a film that so thoroughly externalizes psychological states it becomes almost corporeal, a startling recombination of the film forms scholar Linda Williams famously labeled “body genres.” Scraping together the techniques of horror, melodrama, and, if not pornography, then something like romance, Dolan concocts a promiscuously stylized portrait of the sadomasochistic allure of the “masculine.” Tom at the Farm isn’t a wet dream. It’s a wet nightmare.
For the first hour, at least, the film pursues the antagonistic relationship between Tom and Francis with seductive abandon, underscoring the tension between them, sexual and otherwise, with composer Gabriel Yared’s assertive strings. Adapted by Dolan and Michel Marc Bouchard from the latter’s eponymous play, Tom at the Farm consummates the focused intensity of the stage with a series of seething images: a sudden chase through an autumn cornfield, bloodied hands after the birth of a calf, a face peering through the screen door of the farmhouse as if from the inside of a cage. Indeed, Tom is trapped. Whether by dint of rural Canada’s social strictures or his obscurely traumatic family history, Guillaume hid his relationship with Tom from his mother, Agathe (Lise Roy), and Francis, desperate to keep her “happy” yet unwilling to relinquish his one link to life beyond the farm, holds the visitor more or less captive.
His handsome features darkened slightly by scruff, Cardinal leavens the character’s violent menace with flashes of affection, achieving a sublimely discomfiting charge. As he presses his hands into Tom’s neck one night, their lips nearly touching, the connection takes on the tenor of a dominant/submissive relationship shading into an abusive one. (It’s possible, watching it, to be turned on, ashamed at being turned on, and turned on by the shame all at once.) Though The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney accused Dolan of “auteurial self-adulation” after the film’s debut at the 2013 Venice Film Festival, it’s the filmmaker’s on-screen presence that prevents Tom at the Farm from devolving into a kind of sexploitation; the film’s allegory for internalized homophobia, a gay man’s perilous attraction to straightness itself, seems in this case deeply personal. By the time his potential savior comes along, in the form of Guillaume’s beard, Sarah (Évelyne Brochu), Tom’s wish to remain suggests the sense of erasure that accompanies any length of time spent in the closet. He’s no longer just being held hostage, he’s also holding himself.
If the film fails to resolve the challenges thrown up by its ingenious premise, turning in the final act toward more rudimentary thrills, Tom at the Farm nonetheless seizes on a bracing, specifically homoerotic expression of fear and desire. For gay men, after all, the “body genres” of horror and pornography both employ the unstable codes of body language: Culturally and sexually, the pleasures of playing with the expectations of conventional masculinity are legion, and yet, aimed at the wrong man, the longing glance or flirtatious smile can spell immense danger. It’s along this tetchy boundary that Tom at the Farm constructs its finest sequence, a tango in an empty barn that edges up to the fulfillment of the main pair’s mutual interest and then pulls back—or out, as the case may be. Merging the ache of arousal with the pang of suspense until they’re almost indistinguishable, Francis and Tom’s pas de deux thus registers as yet another microcosm of Dolan’s forceful, even extravagant, work. It’s not a climax, exactly, but it left me spent.