This past Sunday, TIFF staged an event called “In Conversation with Jake Gyllenhaal and Denis Villeneuve” as part of Canada’s Top Ten. The purpose of the event was to promote their latest effort, Enemy, which happened to be showing in the theatre next door, and for which Villeneuve and Gyllenhaal provided an introduction, though Gyllenhaal was too sick to appear afterwards. I was in attendance for both, and I am thrilled to report that I had a tremendous experience watching a memorable, powerful psychological thriller by a Montreal director based on a fascinating interpretation of very different source material: The 9 p.m. screening of Tom at the Farm.
Of the two collaborations between Gyllenhaal and Villeneuve, Enemy was the one which I was anticipating. The combination of Jose Saramago’s novel The Double, and the warped direction of Villeneuve led me to believe that this was not a film to be missed. And, to a great degree, it still isn’t. There is much to recommend about Enemy, and it certainly held my attention during the screening. But for some reason, I felt that it just did not succeed as a “thriller”, mainly because it lacked thrills.
Perhaps this was the fault of casting Jake Gyllenhaal, the first choice of Villeneuve’s, but only in North American region, (he mentioned that he wanted to cast a European actor, and I speculated wildly about which one). There is nothing wrong with Gyllenhaal’s performance(s), but perhaps this other actor would have brought a level of explosiveness that seems to be out of character(s) for Gyllenhaal. In fact, during the In Conversation event, the sick Gyllenhaal, (Illenhaal?), came across as quite personable, (if a tad pretentious), justifying his leading actor status, at least in my mind. But in Enemy, eh. (Eh-nemy, more like it).
Maybe I should put the blame on Villeneuve, whose constant use of dreams and reality revealed a level of duplicity that I feel strayed from the source material, adding a layer of “irreality” or “surreality” that I feel was just not present in the original text. Part of the sense of urgency with this piece is the fact that the uncanny is real, that this is actually happening, and the dream element I felt created a sense of displacement that should not have permeated this piece.
Lastly, the use of concrete, ugly, Toronto (and Mississauga and Scarborough), took me out of a sense of “placenessless”, and instead, left me searching for recognizable buildings, and into a sense of reality blurring into irreality, such as the scene where Gyllenhaal rents a movie from Queen Video, but the oddest Queen Video I’ve ever seen, located next to the Philippine variety store, in a dowdy strip mall. This created a kind of two ways about the film, (which I guess was kind of point), but removed a sense of either “what is” or “what is not”. This duality is a difficult to project with a sense of wholeness.
But while Enemy mostly fizzled, Tom at the Farm sizzled. This was my second-go-round at Dolan’s film, and while one of the common critiques of Enemy was to see it a second time, I felt as though it was Tom at the Farm that lends itself best to a repeat performance, and I was able to glean much of what I missed the first time.
Through his interpretation of the French play Tom a la ferme, Dolan is able to very much capture the sense of place that is suggested by the title, but even more so, is able to capture Tom outside of the farm as well, (a better title may have been Tom, at the farm).
Dolan is fascinating here as a director and writer, (costume designer, scriptwriter, music supervisor etc. etc. etc.), but especially as an actor, because he is adapting somebody else’s material for the first time. There were far too many films last year, (the twins The World’s End and This is the End come to mind), that would have benefitted from the influence of an outside observer, or at least would have been based off of something. Surprisingly, it is Dolan’s triumph as the lead, as Tom, that makes this film so compelling. It is the slow burn, Dolan’s suggestion not to reveal too much about the inner Tom, (a lack of fever dreams about arachnids, par example), that make this character study so fascinating.
On a first viewing, I was distracted by the grand strokes of Dolan the director, (shrinking the screen during key moments of conflict, mirroring the shrunken screen of intimacy used throughout his previous film, Laurence Anyways), along with the offbeat musical selections and creative use of camera framing. Come for wunderkind Dolan’s use of staging that captures the essence of the play, but stay for the sense of remove, in which he is able to take his lead character out of the stifling environment of the main place, (a technique that was used to contradictory effect in August: Osage County, assuming that it has not been recut, revealing a sense of displacement that ruins the effect of the original work).
Dolan’s boldest stroke comes at the end of the film, during the final credits, in which a perfect musical choice, (look closely at the costume of Tom’s “captor” Francis, to fully appreciate the effect), but then see how Dolan, as Tom, shows a sense of anxiety that I would have loved to have seen from Julia Roberts’s Barbara Weston in A:OC). Tom is out, he’s away from the farm, in the city of Montreal, (Interestingly, Enemy makes the urban jungle of Toronto the final shots, yet devoid of citizens). Tom, in contrast, is alive in the city, a place that is not suggested by the tightness of the play. Yet, the suggestion, at least for me, is the “now what”? Dolan implies that the stifling sense of farmness remains with the heretofore urban Tom. It is fascinating that we pick up with Tom leaving his sham of a life for a new experience, and we end with the same. You can take the farm out of the boy, but you cannot take the boy out of the farm, at least without his new friend with whom to play. But, hey, with a friend like this, who needs Enemy?