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Thursday, April 9, 2009

Canadian Film Review: White Room (1990)

* *

Director: Patricia Rozema
Starring: Maurice Godin, Kate Nelligan

Whatever faults she may have as a filmmaker, Patricia Rozema is, at the very least, consistently interesting. There are a lot of ideas in her films and they tend to have a magical/lyrical quality that makes them quite beautiful, if not always successful. White Room is a failure but it's a noble failure, one that comes so close but ultimately just misses the mark.

White Room unfolds as a mixture of genres, freely blending elements of fairytale with noir and avante garde stylings. At its centre is Norm (Maurice Godin), a lonely man who still lives with his parents and spends his nights spying on women in their homes. On one such occasion he witnesses the rape and murder of Madelaine X (Margot Kidder), a pop star whom he’ll come to discover wasn’t exactly what she seemed. Norm flees the scene and tries to call the police, but can’t bring himself to admit what he saw happen. His inability to act makes him feel guilty, but his concern over the circumstances of Madelaine X’s death is soon displaced by his curiosity regarding a woman who shows up at the funeral.

Norm follows the woman to a house that seems to be receding back into nature, overgrown as it is with weeds. The woman is Jane (Kate Nelligan), who hires Norm to do some grounds keeping work for her and tries to keep him at arm’s length lest he discover the nature of her connection to Madelaine X, which she feels must be kept secret at all costs. They fall in love and Norm discovers the truth, which is then exposed for the entire world courtesy of Zelda (Sheila McCarthy), a woman who has a thing for Norm and is jealous of the attention he’s been paying to Jane. Jane is devastated, leading to one final tragic act… or not, depending on how you read the film.

Because the film is essentially a post-modern fairytale, Norm is able to undo what’s been done and give himself and Jane a happy ending – but is it earned? There’s a certain level of detachment to the way the story unfolds and it pushes the audience away by constantly reminding us that we’re being told a story, one set in a dreamy version of the modern world that’s so obviously not “real” that it’s difficult to connect to it. The lack of connection, I suppose, is my main problem with the film because I didn’t feel invested enough in the characters to really care what became of Norm or Jane, separately or apart.

The love story, however, is only half the story the film is telling. The other half is concerned with the nature of celebrity and, more specifically, the relationship of celebrity to audience. As a voyeur, Norm stands in for the audience, believing that he’s doing something harmless because all he’s doing is looking. However, that looking is actually a form of consumption that threatens to destroy the real person behind the persona Madelaine X, all for the pleasure of the masses. The question of whether Madelaine is literally or figuratively killed is ambiguous, but what is clear is that the hunger of the audience, who desire to drain a public persona of its humanity, is the real guilty party, rather than the shadowy figure who breaks into her home and is never seen again. This aspect of the film is much more successfully explored.

White Room is the kind of film that has strengths which equal but never really surpass its weaknesses. I admire it for some of the chances it takes, but wouldn't recommend it to the casual viewer.

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