Sunday, June 15, 2014

Killing the suspense: Xavier Dolan's Tom at the Farm (2013)

Recovering from what for me was easily the worst cinematic experience of the year and in the impossibility of rewinding the whole thing in my head, I decided that I had to make something good out of it by at least trying to understand why it had been so frustrating. Was it Xavier Dolan's omnipresent, falsely angelic face? Or maybe the exploitation of the theme of homosexuality to seek the viewer's complicity? No. Apparently, it had something to do with camera placement.

Xavier Dolan, born 1989, is a Canadian actor and director. He has risen to prominence in the last five years with LGBT-themed dramas like I Killed My Mother (2009), Laurence Anyways (2012) and the recent Mommy (2014), which shared this year's Cannes Jury Prize with Jean-Luc Godard's Goodbye to Language, no less. Tom stands out somewhat from his other films, because it's "a psychological thriller, and it’s dry and raw and rough and it’s in the country and it's ugly", according to Dolan's own definition. It tells the story of a young man (played by the director himself) who having suffered the loss of his boyfriend Guillaume, resolves to attend his funeral despite their relationship having hitherto been kept secret. When he arrives to the titular farm he has to deal with Guillaume's grieving mother Agathe and the violent, homophobic elder brother Francis. At once repelled and attracted by Francis' macho attitude, Tom soon succumbs to an insane role play in which he has to hide the true nature of his past relationship with Guillaume to safeguard Agathe's supposedly fragile mental state. (Spoilers ahead.)

This seems a good premise for a drama, but Dolan has other plans for us. After a boyishly melodramatic opening with Tom scribbling a posthumous love letter to his boyfriend, then driving to Guillaume's home to the tune of an agonizingly ear-piercing song, the tone radically changes when Tom arrives at destination. The atmosphere gets darker, an ominous music starts to play in the background, and Tom performs the classic scene of the stranger who comes knocking at an isolated house, insistently shouting "Anyone there?" as if an empty abode was too bizarre a circumstance for him to accept. After eventually managing to surreptitiously enter the farmhouse, he falls asleep at the kitchen table. Of course, we wait for the homeowner to return: how will he or she react to the intrusion?

The sequence inside the house is the first one that made me turn up my nose. It begins with a few establishing shots of Tom exploring the house that have the function to show that the protagonist finds himself in an extraneous and potentially hostile environment.

This is confirmed by the next shot: at over eight minutes in, the film's title on a black screen signals that the premise has been set up, and alerts our attention on what happens next. At this point, a close-up on Tom sleeping impedes a complete view of the kitchen, reaffirming our suspicions that some encounter is about to take place. Dolan here is drawing upon the conventions of the thriller and horror genres, arousing our expectations for a sudden revelation of the off-screen space.

But then Dolan frames the kitchen in a lengthy (about 8 seconds) long shot very similar to the first one, except that now Agathe occupies the center right of the frame:

Are we startled when we notice the figure in the foreground? I can tell you that when I saw the film in the theater, no one in the audience had the slightest reaction to this scene. Part due to the room's semidarkness, and part because Agathe's coat and the wall are roughly of the same whitish color, we become aware of her presence without any shock. Moreover, choosing to use a long shot weakens the tension built with the previous shots, because it gives us instantly access to all elements in a scene that not only is extremely static but also has a considerable duration. To be completely fair, Dolan manages to bring a soupcon of suspense by framing the first and the last shot from the same position, because we instinctively react to the graphic differences between the two shots even before becoming aware of the presence of a new character. However, as we have seen, the effect is diluted by the shot's length as well as the wide view provided by the long shot.

After the funeral has taken place, we get another interesting example of ineffective camera placement. Tom has decided not to give the funeral speech he and Francis had previously agreed upon, so we assume Francis will be enraged. As Tom goes to the church's restroom, we first get a medium shot of Tom's back while he relieves himself. Showing the character's back seems to me a good choice, since it makes him appear vulnerable and unaware of what will happen.

The claustrophobic environment increases the tension as well. Will Francis suddenly attack him from behind? In the next shot the camera turns by 90 degrees and frames Tom in a medium close-up as he's about to open the toilet's door:

The point of view has changed, so that we now expect Francis to jump from the right. No such luck: likewise in the previous sequence, we get a medium long-shot of Francis patiently waiting outside the toilet, apparently unwilling to disturb his victim. When Tom eventually shows up, we have to wait approximately 25 seconds before the conflict begins. They exchange a few lines of dialogue, then the scene delivers, sorta, when Francis pushes Tom in the toilet again. The sequence closes on a medium close-up of Tom and Francis confronting each other in the toilet.

What is our reaction this time? The first two shots convey the sense that Tom is in a no-escape situation, because the close framing allows us to share his space in an almost physical way. Like in the kitchen scene, a restricted knowledge of the environment here keeps us uncertain about Francis' imminent appearance. But the third shot fatally breaks our connection with Tom, at the same time making us aware of the exact spatial relationship between Tom and Francis way before their scuffle begins. We have so much time to contemplate the scene's configuration that we almost know in advance how the action will unfold. The actors' hesitant performances definitely contribute to the lack of tension, but above all it's the unwise placement of the camera together with the ineffective staging that make the scene fall flat. This is not to say, however, that cutting to a wider shot automatically loosens the tension. As we will see in the next example, Dolan himself provides a more successful instance of this strategy later in the film.

As the story develops, things get more and more ambiguous between Tom and Francis. Repulsion makes room for an unwholesome mutual attraction, and I suppose at this point we could not seriously hope to be spared a tango scene in the barn. Judgment put aside, let's see how Dolan arranges the scene. A long shot taken from a high angle establishes the spacious environment of the barn, with the open door on the center-left side of the frame and the sunlight breaking from the windows on the right. An alternation of medium shots and medium close-ups gives the dance a hectic rhythm:

While they dance, Francis explains Tom that he has gotten tired to live with his mother, and that sometimes he even wishes she would die. Now Dolan cuts to a long shot taken from the same vantage point of the first shot, revealing Agathe standing immobile at the door while Tom and Francis are performing a dance movement which continues into the next shot. The dance abruptly ends as the characters realize that someone is observing them:

This time the editing has successfully conveyed a surprise effect. This is due, I think, to many factors. First, the scene's dynamism guides our eyes towards the dance, so that it's somewhat startling to register that another element in the frame is claiming our attention. The effect is enhanced by a chromatic contrast, since Agathe appears in the only cool color portion of a predominantly reddish composition. Moreover, Agathe's frozenness comes out as menacing if compared to the boys' excitement (recall for comparison the kitchen scene, where both Tom and Agathe were frozen in their positions). What also contributes to heighten the tension is, of course, that we fear Agathe's reaction  ̶  after all, within a single instant she is confronted with the eventuality that both her dead son and the living one are homosexual. In this case staging, editing and the characters' restricted knowledge (Agathe about her sons' sexual orientation, Tom and Francis about being watched) successfully contribute to the final effect.

I'd like to consider one more scene (sorry, but it's another crappy one). Near the film's end, Tom has eventually decided to escape from the farm, but apparently Francis hasn't taken it very well: as Tom is walking along a B road at night, a car's headlights appear in the distance behind him. So he leaves the road and hides in the wood:

Obviously, we wonder if Francis will be able to catch him. At this point, our old friend the long shot comes back:

If we had any doubts about Francis' position with respect to Tom, this shot clarifies once and for all that he has still to cover a lot of ground before he reaches Tom. Once again, the camera finds itself in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now back in the wood. Tom lays crouched down behind a tree trunk, and for an infinitesimal instant he and his chaser even share the same space on screen as Francis' silhouette emerges in the background, perhaps suggesting that there still exist a remote eventuality that the escape could fail (why the aspect ratio changes at times, I can't figure out):

At this point, Tom realizes that the time is right for him to leave his hiding place, but again the camera abandons him just like in the toilet scene, staying instead with Francis as he helplessly tries to discern Tom in the darkness. He doesn't see anything, and neither do we. As the sound of a starting car announces that Tom is finally in safety, Francis falls prey to desperation. Perhaps in an extreme attempt to extort a last breath of suspense, the camera follows him running in Tom's direction:

The car stays off screen all the time, a clear hint that we don't have to seriously worry about the possibility that he will succeed in catching Tom. The conclusion doesn't catch us off guard:

Strangely, in this situation the camera seems to feel more affection for the antagonist than for the hero, as if we were asked to feel more empathy for Francis as his only chance for redemption vanishes in the horizon. Actually, in more than one occasion I had the impression Dolan felt compelled to pay his dues to the thriller genre, whereas his real concern was exploring Tom and Francis' sick dynamics. The many hints about Francis' latent homosexuality could have been explored in greater depth, but they get sacrificed to Dolan's self-imposed boundaries. It's possible that beneath Tom's thriller surface lays a far better movie.

In conclusion, elements like staging, camera placement and shot length can deeply affect our enjoyment of a movie, especially for a genre like thriller that relies so much on good timing to elicit a response from the audience. I learn from another interview that at the time Dolan shot Tom, he had not seen a single Hitchcock film. I wish he had.

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