Last year at the Milwaukee Festival of Films in French, I saw Tom à la ferme (Tom on the Farm), the new Xavier Dolan flick at the time. I enjoy the sharp visual appeal and colorful, intimate light of Dolan’s directorial style, and this was no exception.
The previews made the movie look like something akin to Louis Malle’s surrealistic Black Moon, when in fact it’s a basically realistic, thriller-esque take on grief, guilt and identity. Despite the fact that I felt some elements were lacking, there’s still plenty to recommend seeing it.
However, I’m not bringing up Dolan’s film to critique it. I’m bringing it up because it was my pathway to the eponymous play by Michel Marc Bouchard on which the film was based. While the same basic plot framework is shared between the play and the movie, Bouchard’s work outdoes itself with several brilliant details all its own.
The story goes like this: Tom, a guy in his mid-twenties who lives and works in the city, travels to the country to attend the funeral of his recently-dead boyfriend. He’s never met his boyfriend’s family, and the distance he feels from them is apparent.
This distance is present both because of the difference in their backgrounds and because Tom feels compelled to hide the relationship between himself and the deceased. That is, he feels compelled to hide this fact from Agatha, his late boyfriend’s mother. The boyfriend’s older brother, Francis, apparently already knows about the relationship and is determined to make sure Agatha doesn’t find out about it.
Both Francis and Agatha seem to be counting on Tom to say something of value at the funeral. When the time comes, he fails to say anything at all. Following the funeral, Tom seems to find himself unable to leave the farm. He begins doing chores with Francis, milking the cows and eventually assisting in delivering a calf. Francis continually abuses Tom both verbally and physically in a way that Tom more or less accepts and hides from Agatha. I’ll stop there for now.
I wasn’t able to get my hands on the original French version of Tom à la ferme, but I did find a downloadable version of an English translation by Linda Gaboriau from Talonbooks. The play is funny, devastating and harshly dazzling, and I understand why Dolan saw a great opportunity to make a movie in it.
Before continuing, a disclaimer: I have some reservations about simply reading plays. As a play is meant to be performed, in a sense it’s only as good or bad as a particular performance. That said, I think there’s still value in reading plays for the same reason there’s still value in reading translations (something I discussed recently in regards to Serhiy Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad).
While Dolan’s film focuses more on the sado-masochistic relationship between Tom and Francis as an extension of Tom’s feelings of grief and helplessness over his boyfriend’s death, I think Bouchard’s play more clearly highlights the idea of deception, including self-deception, especially as it relates to those who are already adept at hiding. To this end, it makes interesting use of language, specifically foreign language.
Gaboriau’s translation is still essentially a bilingual play, due to a certain element of the plot that calls for both French and English to be spoken. The parts involving both languages are relatively short—but they serve a major purpose in expressing Tom’s predicament in hiding his real relationship to his deceased boyfriend—and include one of the funniest scenes in the play.
Francis has, in an effort to convince his mother of his brother’s happiness (read: heterosexuality), cooked up a fictional girlfriend for him named Nathalie. According to Francis, Nathalie is a pasta-loving chain-smoker who only speaks French.
(For the purpose of the translation, the setting of the play is understood to be rural Ontario rather than rural Quebec, so “Nathalie” speaks French as an outsider rather than English. In this post, I’m referring to the translation throughout, since this is how I read it, but the roles of the two languages are reversed in the original.)
Upon Tom’s arrival, Francis tells him in so many words under threat of strangulation that he, Tom, “will” play along with the fiction of Nathalie, and fills him in on the essential details.
Later, in an attempt to make his mother happy, Francis drags Tom into the spotlight, announcing to Agatha that Nathalie phoned and that Tom spoke with her. When asked what she said, Tom replies with supposedly verbatim statements, some first spoken in French and then translated into English.
He speaks of his sadness, reflects on how Agatha’s son made him smile and even begins to describe their lovemaking, all while barely keeping up the pretense that his words represent Nathalie speaking through him. He also describes the accident that killed his lover in visceral detail, and his anger at feeling abandoned.
This scene is interesting because it raises the question of why Tom bothers speaking French at all. There’s the fact that he’s put on the spot and that by taking the time for translation, he buys himself time and control. The French also functions as a framing technique, presenting his words more obviously as being someone else’s.
It’s possible that these factors further feed into an expression of disdain for these people who require a convincing performance of him. He also, maybe most importantly, finds his own way of telling the lie-truth that he’s been forced to by Francis.
Despite these theatrics that present Tom’s beloved to his family as he was both in sex and death, Agatha and Francis claim to be pleased by Tom’s account of “Nathalie”‘s words.
Later, it turns out that Francis based the fiction of Nathalie on a photo that his brother provided of himself and a girl named Sara, a stylist at the ad agency where he and Tom worked together. This photo was obtained by a kind of blackmail, whereby Francis told his brother he wouldn’t say anything to their mother about his “little secret” if he just gave him a picture of himself with a pretty girl.
It also turns out that this pretty girl Francis has built up so much in his mother’s mind is, according to Tom, an “alcoholic motormouth” with no taste and a predilection for photocopying anything she can get her hands on.
Eventually, Sara is enlisted to come and perform for Agatha. She speaks French just passably enough to fool Agatha, to an extent. Put off by Francis and the general atmosphere, “Nathalie” at first uses her badly-formulated sentences to try to communicate secretly with Tom, while Tom now pretends to once again “translate” her words.
Throughout the time Sara is with them, Tom at times forgets to translate for her or even translates for her when she’s not speaking, adding to the absurdity of the situation.
This kind of bad translation humor is nothing new, and its use as a metaphor for the cycle of deception Tom is caught in is also fairly obvious. But the complicated route this deception must take is depicted brilliantly and with brutal humor.
Added to the foreign language factor is the fact that Tom is a copywriter. He specializes in angling and advantageously aiming the truth, a skill much in demand in today’s world. The task that’s put to him in dealing with Francis and Agatha is, of course, way beyond simply showing a fact in the best possible light. He continues to plow away at the job, however, to assuage his own grief over his lover’s death, to “win” over (or against) Francis or simply out of some kind of compulsion.
Tom plays with the idea of synonyms and pauses in the middle of his “Nathalie” monologue to ponder the origins of the word “horny.” But despite his proclivity for words, he knows that words won’t save him. This is summed up fairly simply when Francis remarks that he knows Tom thinks he’s good-looking, and Tom says to himself, “I say yes, he punches me. I say no, he punches me.”
As some of the best writers and translators may be so good at their craft because they accept perfect one-to-one communication as a lost cause from the start, this grim sense of pre-failure is part of what makes Tom able to use words to provide a flimsy kind of comfort to Francis, Agatha and himself.
While we may at first be tempted to simply see an intelligent and self-aware young man who’s being persecuted by those who don’t understand him, it soon becomes clear that Tom doesn’t entirely understand himself, either. It’s obviously not the first time he’s attempted to be flexible with the truth, to invent it from scratch or to mask it at will.
Because an abuse of truth almost always involves an abuse of language, too, it’s not surprising that words and language paradoxically become a precious resource to those oppressed by it.
Lurking behind all of this is the fact that we don’t really know who the dead man was. As time goes on, it’s not only his own family’s knowledge of him that’s thrown into doubt, but Tom’s as well.
Bouchard’s Tom à la ferme is a dark downward spiral with a wicked, generous sense of humor. Like its main character, the play accepts the darkness of its subject matter from the beginning, but never gives up trying to put on a good show.
The result is a beautiful, sensitive and honest look at the dance society forces its members to do for survival, the way grief demands compensation and the strange, fraught relationship between the two.