Olivia Howe, from the BFI London Film Festival team and feminist horror collective The Final Girls, writes about Canadian director Xavier Dolan’s fourth and fifth features, Tom at the Farm (2013) and Mommy (2014). They screen this Sunday in a double bill as part of our Club Ciné strand, showcasing the best of French Cinema at Picturehouse Central.
Making his directorial debut aged 19 at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival with the openly autobiographical I Killed My Mother, Xavier Dolan has quickly secured a reputation for confrontational, bold and precocious filmmaking. But whilst aesthetically Dolan’s work can often be erratic and unpredictable, thematically his films are pretty consistent. Recurring themes of love, jealousy, grief and Freudianism appear across the six films he has made to date, as does the repeated motif of vulnerable individuals seen at a crucial point of change in their lives.
Dolan’s fourth feature Tom at the Farm is a disorientating suspense drama adapted from Michel Marc Bouchard’s stage play of the same name. Arguably his most accessible work, the film presents a slight shift in gear for the director, certainly from a generic standpoint. As with Dolan’s melodramas the film bursts with an almost manic energy, but the tone here is slightly different. Dolan himself plays Tom, a young man who arrives at the funeral of his lover, only to discover his boyfriend’s family know nothing of him, their relationship or his sexual orientation. It’s a subdued environment for a Dolan drama to play out, but one filled with tension and sadness.
For Dolan, whose films generally operate in a heightened register, presenting extremes of tone, emotion and performance, Tom at the Farm is an exercise in restraint. Restrained from indulgence and extravagance, Dolan produces a raw, Hitchcockian thriller seeped in grief and with emotion for the most part limited to glances exchanged between clipped dialogue. Heightened by Gabriel Yared’s stunning orchestral score and paired with André Turpin’s expressive high-contrast cinematography, the film effortlessly weaves us into Tom’s psychological framework against a haunting, increasingly surreal backdrop. It’s a masterclass in tonal and narrative escalation and the closest to a fully blown thriller he has made.
Shifting the gears once more, Dolan’s fifth feature Mommy meanwhile is an extravagant, shocking and at times outrageous cinematic take on a Freudian therapy session. Coming almost full circle from I Killed My Mother, the film’s self-consciously soap-like drama revisits the narrative of a troublesome adolescent at odds with his long-suffering mother. But this time the matriarchy takes centre stage in the form of Diana (Anne Dorval), a widowed mother struggling to take care of her volatile son, Steve (Antoine Oliver Pilon).
Dolan’s devastating tale of mother-son love and codependence is an explosive and manic work, offering us little escape or room to breathe across its two hour plus runtime. Much like the story of its characters, the effect is one of claustrophobia and wild intensity. The character of Steve is loud, abusive and hyperactive, his sensibility reflected in the mad energy of the film’s style. Working once again with Turpin, Dolan creates an intimacy between audience and character through use of a tight 1:1 ratio which constricts the viewer to the social and spatial confines of Steve and Diane’s lives. At crucial moments of emotion and release – one even sparks an elating aspect ratio shift – the film is immensely powerful.
At once very different formally and thematically similar, these two striking films paired together make for arguably the most successful pairing of Dolan’s work. Thematic ticks and visual quirks echo and bounce off one another across the double bill, the clash of restraint and wildness making for a rich and rewarding experience. One can see the aesthetics combine in Dolan’s latest It’s Only the End of the World which only adds more depth and thematic nuance to a precocious and rich body of work. Dolan remains one of our most exciting young filmmakers.
Join us at Picturehouse Central on Sunday 11 December, 1pm. Book tickets.