The kick-off premise is this: a young man shows up at his lover's funeral in the country only to discover that the lover's family has no idea who he is or even that their son was gay. That's a wide open premise. It almost sounds like a creative writing challenge. "And then…?" You could spin a dozen different dramas or comedies from that sentence. Dolan, adapting from a play by Michel Marc Bouchard, takes it immediately into genre territory. The tension and danger mount as the mystery of his partner's family and Tom's own hopes for departure begin to unravel.
Meanwhile across the Atlantic, Franck at the beach, who shares with Tom a certain willful masochism (though his is less self aware), is initially having a much better time of it. In STRANGER AT THE LAKE, Franck (gorgeous Pierre Deladonchamps) spends every summer day at a remote beach where gay men wander about, often naked, having anonymous and often unsafe sex in the surrounding woods. Franck, unlike Tom, is a cypher in his own story. This beautiful young man seems to have had no life prior to or possibly after the events of the picture (in a bold but fascinating move from writer/director Alain Guiraudie, virtually everyone in the picture might well be its title character, including our protagonist). We learn so little about any character really but the disturbing allegorical thriller is so strongly conceived and composed, that we end up invested anyway. Franck falls hard for Michel (Christophe Pau), a handsome but obviously deadly looker and we worry for him far more than he worries for himself.
Sometimes it's fun to watch provocative foreign films and wonder what their dumbed down American remake would be like. Stranger by the Lake, would be virtually unrecognizable since it couldn't be made in the first place though if it were they'd obviously reverse its habit of close up nudity and long shot violence. This shocking French film caused a stir at Cannes earlier this summer with its brief moments of explicit sex but more, I would propose, for its unwavering gaze at its willing sacrificial lambs. Stranger won two prizes at Cannes both for best queer film and for its inspired direction. Guiraudie's camera watches the violence and the sex boldly, unblinking and impassive, recording rather than judging which proves far more unsettling.
Tom at the Farm on the other hand, might survive a more mainstream translation since much of its raciest content is implied or spoken. On the other hand why make one when Dolan's is such a success and so blessed with weird nooks and zigzags of personality and a truly idiosyncratic rhythm. Dolan and his editor usually cut right past the action you're expecting which forces you offbalance at all sorts of key moments, and leaves you racing to catch up to stay with its sick games. Dolan has received some criticism that he shouldn't be starring in the pictures he also writes and directs Dolan's bratty prodigy response "you can kiss my narcissistic ass" is crush-worthy but I can't help thinking that it's also maybe a little true. Tom at the Farm is a major success but the one thing that doesn't always quite work is Dolan's star turn at center. He's a totally solid actor but the complicated psychological twists would've benefited from an acting prodigy every bit a match for the terrific director behind the camera, and not just in the mirror.
Nathaniel Rogers would live in the movie theater but for the poor internet reception. He blogs daily at the Film Experience. Follow him on Twitter @nathanielr.