Did you know that a new Xavier Dolan film is opening this month? This may come as a surprise, given the fanfare with which a new Dolan film is customarily greeted in this country, but it's true: It arrives in theatres Aug. 14 in New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, among other cities across the United States. But now hang on a minute. As notices in the likes of The New York Times and the Village Voice begin to emerge next week, and as cinephiles, as ever in lockstep with the New York release schedule, begin to trade in the currency of opinion, you may wonder why here in the director's native Canada, we don't get to enjoy a new Dolan film, too. It's because we already did – two years ago. America's new Dolan film is Tom at the Farm. It premiered in Toronto in 2013.
I interviewed Dolan at the time. He asked if I planned to review the film, and I explained that, because I contributed mainly to American publications, I wouldn't likely have the chance to write on it until it opened in the United States. "So, in five years," Dolan joked dryly. I'd assumed as much – his films had so far crossed the border at a glacial pace. "Somebody asked me if it was going to be released in the U.S. soon," I said, "and I told them not to expect it until probably 2015, as usual." We shared a laugh: We both thought I was exaggerating. And Dolan really seemed to think that Tom could be a hit. Still, he knew the difficulties. He had no stateside cache. "It's been ground zero for me in the States, what with Laurence Anyways performing so badly this year. Nobody in America knows who I am."
One understands when an avant-garde curio or five-hour Philippine drama has trouble securing a lucrative distribution deal. But Tom at the Farm is not an especially obscure or demanding film. It boasts what someone with marketing expertise might call commercial appeal: It's a genre film, a thriller, and one with the sort of high stakes and vaguely lubricious aspect you'd expect of erotic drama. Film critic Guy Lodge, writing in Variety, called it "Dolan's most accomplished and enjoyable work to date," and, more saliently, "his most commercially viable." I can confirm, at least anecdotally, that it is something of a crowd pleaser: The audience I saw it with at the Toronto International Film Festival two years ago seemed quite pleased.
This isn't Dolan's first inexplicable delay. His first feature, I Killed My Mother, screened in New York for the first time in 2013 – a bewildering four years after its world premiere. Laurence Anyways competed in the illustrious Un Certain Regard sidebar at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012, where it was received with tremendous enthusiasm; it didn't open theatrically in the United States until the following summer, and even then, hardly earned a cent. Then there's his latest and most celebrated effort, Mommy. For this opus, Dolan shared the Jury Prize at Cannes last year with Jean-Luc Godard – roughly the cinematic equivalent of Emily Gould splitting a Nobel with Philip Roth – and earned the best reviews of his young career. It had a nominal one-week theatrical run in Los Angeles in December to make it eligible for the Academy Awards and then it wasn't nominated. It shimmered at last into cinemas proper in March – whereupon it promptly disappeared without a trace.
Is Dolan simply untranslatable? Is he doomed to remain a fixture only of the north, like ketchup chips or George Stroumboulopoulos? True, they adore the man in Europe: His model-good looks and off-camera pugnacity are even more to their tastes than ours. It's a rare feat for a filmmaker of Dolan's age – still only 26 – to be honoured at Cannes and embraced on the world stage. But the United States is beginning to look like the final holdout.
This, of course, is a peculiarly Canadian crisis. It's the fate of too many emblematically Canadian stars, nurtured here by local enthusiasm and state funding, to try and fail to penetrate the American public consciousness. It isn't a matter of spurning the national identity, either. One hopes for escape velocity because on the other side of the border stare out many millions of sets of eyes. "The motivation for making movies," Dolan told me in that same interview two years ago, "is that people actually see them." And the United States is nothing if not a land of many people – quite a lot of them perhaps even willing, if they can be persuaded, to see an interesting film.