I’m “biast” (con): haven’t been a fan of Xavier Dolan’s work so far
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
Tom is at the farm, in the countryside outside Quebec, for the funeral of his boyfriend. Except his lover’s mother, Agathe (Lise Roy), has no idea her dead son was gay, so she believes Tom is simply his friend from the ad agency where they work(ed), and laments that “that whore” whom she believes to be her son’s girlfriend — thanks to the machinations of her other son, Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), who has been “protecting” Mom from the truth by inventing stories — hasn’t shown up.
Writer, director, and star (he plays Tom) Xaviar Dolan (Laurence Anyways) has adapted a play by Michel Marc Bouchard not as the emotional domestic drama you might expect from such a setup, but as a Hitchcockian thriller that makes less sense the longer it goes on, and requires him to make Tom less sympathetic and — much worse — far less plausible the longer it continues. I thought the intense strings of suspense on the overwrought soundtrack were rather odd in the opening scene, when Tom arrives at the farm to find no one home, and has a wander around the grounds and barn in a sequence that is in no manner suspenseful. (The cows stare balefully at him, as if to ask what the hell is with that music clinging to him.) But as Francis reveals himself, almost instantly, to be a homophobic thug, Dolan builds a modestly effective sense of ominous menace, particularly as the brother threatens Tom into keeping his mouth shut about the truth, only adding to Tom’s palpable devastation: just as he needs to talk about how he grieves for his relationship and his love, he can’t. And there’s the added tragic loss of how Tom might comfort Agathe by reassuring her that the most important person in her dead son’s life is, in fact, present for his funeral. Can Tom endure through the funeral, until he can escape?
But all this carefully constructed emotional catastrophe gets thrown away when Tom does not, in fact, escape when he can: he sticks around, for no reason that we can see, and somehow falls under a nonexistent spell of Francis’s, even as he grows increasingly violent. Francis is not a charmer under a gruff exterior; he is a monster. After the North by Northwest-ish chase through the cornfield — complete with more of the overwrought suspense strings and an aspect ratio that has suddenly gone superwidescreen — that ends with Tom beaten up by Francis merely for being gay, that should be it for Tom. The funeral is over: there is nothing keeping him in this situation, and he could just hop in his car and get the hell out of there. He doesn’t. When things get even worse, he still doesn’t leave. We have no idea what is going on in Tom’s head that is preventing him from running. And suddenly he has nothing but our derision.
I think we can guess what’s going on in Dolan’s head, though. He’s only 25 years old, and this is already his fourth film. He may be suffering from the young film geek’s mistaken belief that style can trump substance. He’s hugely ambitious in thinking he can take on Hitchcock, but Hitchcock wasn’t just about the way a film looks but also about why people get mired in untenable situations that must be survived. Dolan may be able to ape the one aspect of the great filmmaker he clearly admires so much, but he needs to learn how to ape the other.