Marlon Brando may have played strong, silent types on the stage and screen, but when he was alone, he talked his own ear off. Stevan Riley’s Listen to Me Marlon is all Brando, all the time (well, 99 percent of the time). Its 95 minutes are culled from his personal audio cassette recordings, in which he talked about everything and nothing. There’s some footage from interviews and, of course, clips from his films, but the documentary’s heart is Brando pouring out his soul.
His honesty is matched by his eloquence: “I had a lot of derring-do and panache,” Brando says of his young, impossibly handsome self. Those qualities made his transition from plays to movies, under the tutelage of Stella Adler, rather smooth. Brando also quotes Shakespeare and tosses around words like “miasma”; this may be the first documentary about an actor that makes you consult a dictionary. That is, when you can understand him—at times the man mumbles like a certain Corleone.
Riley generally organizes the film in a logical, early-to-late career linearity. At the beginning of the film, however, today’s Brando talks about having his head scanned into a computer as a 3-D image; he predicts the total digitization of future actors. (You wish you could ask his opinion on James Cameron.) This creepy, no-eyed image reappears throughout the film, sometimes speaking lines from the cassettes, which makes it even creepier.
Naturally, Brando ruminates on his career for the bulk of these tapes, offering his take on going to weekend matinees as a kid (“That sense of good feeling got me through the week”); directors (“They cover up a sense of inadequacy by being very authoritative”); acting (“Lying for a living, that’s all acting is… so, we all act”); and Hollywood in general (“Money, money, money”). He calls Francis Ford Coppola “a card-carrying prick” and applauds his own convincing “pose of indifference,” yet says he’d feel extremely hurt if a film’s problems were blamed on him, as Apocalypse Now and Mutiny on the Bounty were.
When he’s not talking movies, Brando speaks about the human experience at large. He seems to have battled his way through the worst of it: absent, alcoholic parents; the fetishization and lack of privacy that comes with stardom; a son who was kidnapped as a teenager, only to later kill his half-sister’s boyfriend; a daughter who committed suicide. He deemed the United States a “cruel, mean society” and sought peace in Tahiti.
Listen to Me Marlon shows Brando as a flirtatious, evasive interview subject, rarely less than polite in the public eye. His sensitivity, undoubtedly stoked by his troubled childhood and fishbowl life, is both surprising and fascinating to observe. Among his trove of cassettes are self-hypnosis tapes—including at least one for weight loss—and a jarring session where he convinces himself to discuss his own rage.
A fiercely private person, Brando would probably have hated this film. Or maybe, one hopes, he would have shrugged it off as the nature of the beast that kept him both rolling in cash and miserable.
One of the handful of significant characters in Xavier Dolan’s Tom at the Farm is a narcissistic jackass—but, surprisingly, he’s not played by Dolan. The so-called enfant terrible of queer cinema hasn’t gone totally modest, however, as he’s once again cast himself as the film’s titular star. (But he does appear to be “playing ugly.” Once you’ve seen Tom’s distracting, poodle-like DIY haircut, you’ll understand.)
Dolan adapted Tom at the Farm from the play of the same name; he and playwright Michel Marc Bouchard reportedly wrote the drafts relay-style. The director seems to have been a bit red-pen-happy, removing not only most of the theatricality but some important details, too. This quasi-thriller marks a new direction for Dolan, at least in terms of genre, and though it’s much more tolerable than earlier works like Heartbeats and I Killed My Mother (his green shows), in his efforts to make Tom more mysterious, Dolan’s made the film baffling and inaccessible.
Tom is a Montreal ad man whose boyfriend, Guillaume, just died. He travels to the country to visit his lost love’s mother and older brother, Francis, whom Tom did not know existed. It’s soon clear why. Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) is a violent tormentor whose simultaneous anger and obsession with Tom doesn’t exactly mask the basis of his homophobia. He informs Tom that his slightly batty mother (Lise Roy, who originated the role onstage) doesn’t know Guillaume was gay and demands that Tom say whatever it takes to maintain her ignorance. That includes pretending that Guillaume had a serious girlfriend.
Tom at the Farm is gripping enough to keep viewers invested, waiting for something worthy of its horror-movie touches to happen. Disappointingly, nothing ever does. There’s at least one jump scare, plus Hitchcockian flourishes like a tension-infused string score and lots of wide shots. Francis’ mother, who at first seems relatively sane—though preoccupied with the fact that Guillaume’s girlfriend hasn’t been in touch, and a little weird in general—acts increasingly bizarre. Roy’s dowdy look and gray ponytail recall The Shining’s Shelley Duvall, had her character survived the slaughter.
The more Francis berates Tom (“You’re just a waste of cum”) and assaults him as a release for his self-hatred and frustration, the more Tom succumbs to lust-fueled Stockholm Syndrome. Suddenly, the city boy is all about milking cows and maintaining the farm. The oddest scene in the film, though, is the most effective bearer of the movie’s disquieting undercurrent. It involves Francis’ spontaneous tango in a huge garage, and a revelation carelessly shouted over music—the kind you don’t want the subject of your revelation to overhear. The scene initially feels out of place, then turns stomach-sinking.
Still, Tom’s faults are too numerous to overlook. Dolan never makes Tom’s grief believable; although he skillfully projects hypersensitivity (and seems to share Francis’ self-hatred), he rarely acts like someone whose lover has unexpectedly died. Worse, the climax asks several questions that are too open-ended to even warrant speculation. Characters could be dead or alive; Francis may be a murderer or just a lonely bully. An actor is credited as Guillaume in the press notes, but aside from a quick glance of a photo on his casket, you never see him—Tom has only one flashback of the two of them, and you can’t see Guillaume’s face. Was he another victim of Dolan’s overeager red pen?
Moreover, is Guillaume really dead? And why does Tom find himself alone in the house one morning? There aren’t strong enough clues to support any theory, which ultimately makes Tom at the Farm another Dolan disappointment. Happily, this time, it’s not for his same old enfant terrible reasons.
Listen to Me Marlon opens Aug. 14 at E Street Cinema. Tom at the Farm opens Aug. 14 at the Angelika Pop-Up at Union Market.