The photographer hasn't quite made his way into this small hotel room, here at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, and Xavier Dolan is already directing. "What do you think of that wall there?" asks Dolan, though it's not really a question. "Maybe we can move the table – and, you know, just take a little step forward …"
If the Montreal-born Dolan – who co-wrote, directed, edited, costume-designed, and stars in the gothic thriller Tom at the Farm – was hoping to modify his reputation as a control freak, he's off to a bad start. (Oh, also? He created the movie's press kit and poster.)
But then this: As Dolan takes his place on a couch in a hospitality suite, a reporter moves aside a half-eaten pineapple on a nearby coffee table, and the director launches into mock high dudgeon. "How could you do that without asking me?" he barks. "Everything's been placed for the interview! An art director came in. A production designer. In fact, I did all those things myself! I didn't want to lose control. I wanted this" – he waves downward at the sorry-looking pineapple – "to represent my vision!"
And then he smiles slyly, a smile of the painfully self-aware.
Dolan, 25, knows well his reputation as an enfant terrible, because he reads acres of his own coverage; it affects him. "My mom collects photos of me in scrapbooks – big, giant leather scrapbooks. I collect reviews. And I skim and skim and skim," he says. "I've learned so many things reading them." (He must have been especially busy this week: Eight months after this interview, he brought Mommy, his follow-up to Tom at the Farm, to Cannes, where it was greeted by rapturous applause and shouted declarations that it should win the Palme d'Or.)
His controlling impulse, auteurism taken to an exhausting extreme, is rooted partly in self-defence – "A painter will not have 25 people interfering," he explains – and partly to spare others the pain of working with him. "It's a demeaning thing as an artist, if you're an editor, to be told by a director – every director does it, they're sitting in the editing room: 'No, one frame more.' But at some point, you don't want to be somebody's back-seat driver."
If Dolan is firmly in control behind the camera, the character he plays in Tom at the Farm readily submits, horrifically, to the will of others. A chamber piece adapted from a play by Michel Marc Bouchard (Lilies), who has a co-writing credit, the film brings Tom (a ratty-haired, bottle-blond Dolan), a slight worker bee from a Montreal advertising agency, out to the country for the funeral of his lover, Guillaume. There, he realizes Guillaume had spent years misleading his own mother about his sexuality. And Guillaume's brother, Francis, makes it very clear that if Tom reveals the truth, he may not get out of there alive.
But rather than simply flee back to the city, Tom stays on, joining in the lies about Guillaume – at one point imposing on a female friend from the agency to come out and pretend to be Guillaume's grieving girlfriend – becoming a farm hand, and suffering repeated beatings at Francis's hand. "He is allowing his lover to punish him for his death," suggests Dolan. "It's a therapy. Do you understand?"
Dolan wants dearly to be understood: He wants to make sure people know, for example, that he didn't set out to make "the Canadian Deliverance without anal sex." When a public-relations woman walks into the room to end the interview after the prescribed time, he waves her away, saying he needs another five minutes to make sure his point is clear. This then stretches to 10 minutes.
Sometimes, language gets in the way: Though Dolan's English is very fine, he occasionally uses a slightly incorrect word that can, if taken the wrong way, make a conversation needlessly tense. (Speaking with the photographer, he says, "Yes, that's what I told you," even though it seems on reflection that he probably meant, "Yes, that's what I was saying.")
But he wants to make this very clear: If Tom's motivation seems like self-loathing, Dolan believes it is rooted in something far more profound. "I think this is specific to the death of someone, to the guilt you're feeling, and in order to grieve, you are seeking some sort of redefinition of your personality – through abiding by different rules and subscribing to a completely different lifestyle," he says.
"It's sort of a hipster thing. You know, like, hipsters appropriate the codes of various social scales and milieus. Like, suddenly they're dressed like Oscar Wilde aficionados, and you're like – 'Are we costumed? Is there a theme?' You'll find that they're trying to define their personality through the codes of a different milieu, or time. So many downtown townies are dressed like farmies, you know? The Oxford shirt, the boots – it's just so common right now. The mustache – all of these things are speaking to a lack of belief in one's personality.
"When you lose someone, a part of you dies, and disappears, and Tom is trying to redefine this half of himself through this journey with the farm and the hard work and the land."
Tom is an unusual project for Dolan, whose previous three features were from original scripts he'd written himself. "It was different from every possible angle, every possible way. Adapting material that wasn't original. The acting was seen differently. It purged for me all of my tics, my aesthetics. It's about reading the script and thinking: What does this deserve? It does not need slow-motion scenes and corn with Italian songs, or a Swedish band – electronic … " He pauses, gathers his thoughts anew. "I don't want to be putting myself up front as a director, thinking, 'This is my signature.' I don't want people to say: This is such a Xavier Dolan movie. You want to be versatile, professionally, artistically."
"Is it something of a palate cleanser?" I ask him.
"What does that mean?" he replies, but even as the term is explained, he cuts in.
"I got it, and I was already devising a response. But I was curious about the word. I love to learn new words."