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White Room (1990)

by on 2013/07/27

White Room (1990)

“Ask me why I’m a recluse.”

* * * *

I once wrote that Donnie Darko felt like a movie not just set in the late Eighties but made in them. Canada’s ever-impressive writer-director Patricia Rozema’s White Room actually was made in the era, and shares the sense of dark undertow, interwoven through whimsical fantasy.

This feature-length step between I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing and When Night Is Falling concerns a seemingly simple young man, Norman (Maurice Godin). He aspires to be a writer, often jotting ideas in a pad, watching others from a distance, longing for some kind of a connection.

One night his proclivity for people-watching makes him witness to the death of a singer, Madelaine (Margot Kidder). Then, with the investigative help of an eccentric news vendor, Zelda (Sheila McCarthy), he begins to suspect the singer was a front for someone else, a reclusive woman named Jane (Kate Nelligan).

Is he on to a revelation, or is it all just a delusion? The abstract, dreamlike quality of the film allows for interpretation, generally steering clear of the pretension of such “artistic” efforts. Which is not to say it’s entirely successful. One sequence in particular is distractingly over-produced, resembling a low-budget New Wave music video. Fortunately that sequence is brief and defensible as a flight of fancy. Otherwise, segues and symbolism are juggled without much encumbrance.

It’s a studied production, less committed to quirk than its predecessor (Mermaids). It feels more cynical, placing its fantasy in a grounded context. Norman’s apparent innocence is deepened as layers are revealed: a capacity for blunt honesty, quick thinking, and sacrifice.

Initially very little about this work seemed to catch my interest but once I began I was quickly captivated. The allure of seeing Toronto in the Eighties – arguably my golden years – was supplemented by the tale of a struggling young writer, the vintage pop scene (with music performed by Mark Korven and Cherie Camp), and the isolation which comes with self-defence.

White Room would probably make for a spectacular “reclusathon”, the first half of a double bill followed by Whale Music.

What else can I say? I liked it so much I actually enjoyed the narration . . . and that’s saying something.

* * * *

Rated 14A

93 minutes

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