A second movie, like a second novel, is a daunting prospect at the best of times. And after the startling success of her first feature, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987), Toronto writerdirector Patricia Rozema had a hard act to follow. Made for just $350,000, Mermaids
enthralled critics at the Cannes International Film Festival, received wide distribution in North America and became the only publicly funded English-Canadian movie to tum a profit in the past decade. A simple tale about an aspiring photographer who works in an art gallery, Mermaids launched the film career of its star, Canadian actress Sheila McCarthy. And it gave Rozema an opportunity to work on a larger scale. Her new movie is ambitious, an operatic fable full of striking images and elaborate conceits. But White Room’s well-crafted elegance rests on some gravely flawed foundations of character and plot. And because the film is so beautifully conceived in other respects, its failure is all the more disappointing.
The movie is billed as “the erotic dance of the watcher and the watched.” However, for a drama that involves voyeurism, murder, rape, seduction, suicide and pulp journalism, White Room is strangely austere, almost pristine. It
has the framework of a fairy tale, beginning with “Once upon a time, there was a young man who lived a very exciting life—the problem was, it was all in his head.” Norm (Maurice Godin) lives a sheltered life with his parents in suburban Toronto. He dreams of being a writer. And he tries to unblock his imagination, according to the film’s narration, by “prowling in the darkness of other people’s lives.”
With a compulsion that seems more poetic
than prurient, Norm begins spying on a woman who lives alone in a big house with a large expanse of uncurtained windows. Every night, he hides outside while she walks about in a camisole and sings along to recorded music. One night, Norm watches in horror as a man enters the house, rapes the woman and stabs her to death. Norm sees him coming but does nothing to warn her. He just watches while the crime unfolds as a distant flurry of silhouettes.
Traumatized by guilt, Norm leaves home, moves downtown and meets a kooky opportunist named Zelda (Sheila McCarthy). A would-be artist who is obsessed with the media, she runs a newsstand and lives in a Quonset hut beside a tire dump. Anxious to concentrate on her art, she subcontracts her job at the newsstand to Norm. Reading the newspaper, he learns that the woman whom he saw being raped and murdered was a famous pop singer named Madelaine X (Margot Kidder). Norm attends
the star’s funeral, where he observes Jane (Kate Nelligan), a mysterious mourner hiding behind dark glasses and black scarves.
Later, he follows Jane home to the dilapidated house where she lives as a recluse. When she catches him spying on her, he offers to work as her gardener. The job serves as fertile ground for a lot of unsubtle sexual metaphor— “Maybe,” says Norm, “we could make the hedge undulate.” Romance slowly takes root, and Norm unravels the mystery of Jane’s relationship with Madelaine. Finally, he has something to write about. But Zelda is jealous. And she takes an avaricious interest in turning Norm’s story into a media scoop—threatening to shatter Jane’s fragile psyche and trust in Norm. As the conflict heads towards a tragic conclusion, Rozema—with the off-camera largess of a fairy godmother—softens the blow by offering an alternative, happy ending.
That is the last cavalier conceit of a movie that never finds a consistent tone. White Room contains a dizzying array of ideas—about sexual invasion, the isolation of the artist and the crassness of the media. Images and music— Madeline’s lyrics are based on poems by Emily Dickinson—weave a haunting spell. But Rozema seems to be attempting too much at once. Her story is overburdened by esthetic intentions. The mystery at its core—the link between Jane and Madelaine—is compelling. Towards the end, however, the mechanics of an overworked script become intrusive. And McCarthy’s character, while initially promising, gets reduced to an annoying plot device.
But the movie’s central flaw lies with its male hero, who is neither appealing nor convincing. The fault may lie in Rozema’s script, Godin’s performance, or both. In an early scene, Norm tells Zelda about trying to write a story about someone who watches a murder and fails to act. “It won’t work,” she says. “You can’t have a wimp in the middle of a story. The guys won’t identify and the girls won’t be attracted.” Rozema seems determined to defy that conventional wisdom. But Norm is simply not interesting enough. Although the story is told from his perspective, he seems to be an invented male—a straw man in a movie where the real point of view is female.
As Jane, who represents that point of view, Nelligan is a hypnotic presence. She creates an enigmatic sense of sexual power and emotional depth. And despite the vacancy erf her leading man and the vagaries of the script, her performance remains consistently grounded. Kidder, meanwhile, is intriguing as Madelaine, although her character makes only brief, posthumous appearances on video.
White Room is not really about its characters. It is about art. Picking up where Mermaids left off, the movie explores issues of inspiration and desire, ambition and recognition. But it lacks the first-time magic and transcendent spirit that made Mermaids soar. Instead, it has a precious quality. Although White Room offers further evidence of Rozema’s talent and audacity, her vision seems to have got lost in its own reflection.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.