DVD: White Room (1990)

May 24, 2018 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  Alliance / Miramax

Region: 1 (NTSC)

Released:  2004

Genre:  Suspense / Drama / Comedy

Synopsis: After witnessing the brutal murder of iconic singer Madeleine X, wannabe writer strikes up a relationship with the recluse responsible not only for the songs, but Madeleine’s voice.

Special Features:  Audio commentary with writer-director Patricia Rozema.




In 1990, precious critics felt betrayed after newcomer Patricia Rozema made not another charming comedy-drama like her debut, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987), but a kind of suspense drama with sudden jolts of light comedy and fantasy, culminating in a finale that didn’t please most audiences.

The passing decades have been rather kind to White Room, not because it should be reassessed as a small masterpiece, but as a maligned hybrid that doesn’t wholly succeed upon first viewing, but for some, gets better on the second.

In the commentary Rozema recorded for the 2004 Miramax / Alliance DVD, she describes the film as part follow-thru of her desire to play with genres and audience expectations, but also reflect her upgraded cinema education, after having spent time in France and exploring directors like Leo Carax. Certainly in her visual design and use of colours, White Room has a European feel that evokes even a little Jean-Jacques Beineix: Paul Sarossy’s cinematography is quite extraordinary, amping the depth of greens, pastel & sky blues, reds, and deep blacks, as though Rozema wanted the palette to reflect the contrasts among the characters who are to some extent genre archetypes under duress.

Maurice Godin is Norm, a wannabe writer who leaves the suburban sanctuary managed by his ever-smiling, ever proud, ever worried parents for the innards of Toronto proper. What he’ll do for work isn’t planned – everything will somehow fall into place, as Norm is the story’s Prince Charming determined to rescue a damsel from her self-created shuttered life.

The damsel is awkward songstress Jane (wonderful Kate Nelligan), the real voice behind mystery diva Madeleine X (Superman‘s Margot Kidder), whom Norm meets outside of the funeral grounds, after the diva was brutally murdered in the kind of classic late 1980s glass & metal home typical of Miami Vice drug lords and filthy rich.

The intro sequence shows Norm’s midnight routine, pedaling around Rosedale, and like a diligent peeping tom, peering into the framed lives of people, scribbling abstract / amateurish thoughts into his warped but underused notebook. Madeleine becomes his exclusive subject, and after nights of riding to her home and seating himself in a garden chair with a premium view, he witnesses the worst imaginable.



Like Brian De Palma’s Hitchcockian pastiche Body Double (1984), Rozema has her peeper struck with fear and unable to save the film’s shemp heroine as she’s assaulted and hacked up by a thug. Rozema isn’t one for violence or gore, but the sequence is styled like a classic 80s eroto-thriller, and with the drama ultimately leading Norm (and us) to a literal white room where Jane hides and creates her art. These striking moments gave the trailer editors enough material to sell White Room as new sexually provocative thriller. There is sex and some nudity, but Rozema’s script is about fame, artifices, masks, deception, an the tragedy of her characters’ inability to connect; the editors just cut a promo that seemed aimed for a possible theatrical run, or more than likely a teaser aimed for the home video market where eroto-thrillers were regularly filling rental shelves and Pay TV schedules.


Great teasing image for Patricia Rozema’s White Room (1990), but the peering-thru-blinds moment never happens.


Norm, Jane, and Madeleine are victims of circumstances that have evolved beyond their control, and they’re further victimized by the people supposedly there to aide, support, and defend – in Norm’s case, magazine vendor / flaky Zelda (Sheila McCarthy), and for Jane, exploitive record execs (David Ferry and Tracy Moore) who want to mine Jane for whatever’s left inside until she’s dead, and the tapes of unreleased music have been thoroughly depleted.



There’s little doubt Norm is taken by and smitten with Jane, so we know he’s not playing gardener to glean info for a tabloid piece, but Rozema’s script does offer some elements that ruin Norm’s chances for an honest seduction and consummation, and allowing the two to live & love happily ever after. The twists are hardly novel, but they position the would-be couple in dire emotional straits, with Jane’s meticulously controlled isolation poised to be eradicated by Zelda.

In a curious move that precedes Michael Hanneke’s Funny Games (1997) – if not a bit of Superman (1978), with Clark Kent saving Lois Lane from an earthy smothering – Rozema has Norm ‘turning back the clock,’ allowing Jane to live, and living out a fantasy happily-ever-after, but like a French suspense thriller, the ending has different readings: either Norm has trapped himself in a fantasy where he’s dancing with a ghost while Jane’s cadaver lies on the bed, or like a fantasy tale, her resurrection is complete and the couple dance in victory.

Mermaids similarly ends on a fantasy-styled scene, but White Room has recurring narration by a third party, and Norm is styled like a rebel hero in a tale about  living in a cruel world: he wears a Zorro shirt and riding boots, and his hair is slicked like a 1960s comic book hero; he drives a vintage car while his parents live in a turquoise drenched house; and Jane is the fair maiden lost in a cloud of self doubt, and mistrust for humankind.

Jane’s speech about  a scraggly, pure voiced canary is really beautiful, partly because it summarize plain Jane and her supposed best friend Madeleine who fronted her voice, fed off the resulting fame, and perhaps allowed the executives to peck away at Jane for more, more, and more music. (The canary tale is also true: Rozema recalls the incident and her saving and nursing the little bird to a full life.)



Whereas the basic fantasy aspects work, some are very awkward, like a cow adopted by Jane, or Norm’s burst of creativity dramatized by words that leap off the page and swirl around his grinning head. Norm as a writer is also a bit rich, scribbling a few words in a pocket notebook that takes ages to fill, and the pages he finally scribbles and brand him a Writer. His words are nonsense, but maybe that’s part of the tale unfolding like a fantasy: nothing can be taken literally, including the end.

Like Mermaids, Toronto stars as itself, and its refreshing to hear Rozema refer to it as ‘my beautiful city,’ especially since it often starred as a generic American metropolis. There’s no hiding of license plates, street details, or iconic buildings (the Royal Bank Plaza makes another appearance, this time as the golden castle around which ordinary and extraordinary citizens go about their little lives).

Toronto also looks beautiful, which again is a tribute to Sarossy and Rozema’s visual flair for clean images, lines, hot sunlight, saturated colours, and the most rudimentary architectural forms. (In the realm of exotic, Zelda’s ‘home’ nestled close to a pair of draped gravel mounds is ludicrous, but like Betty Blue (1986),Jean-Jacques Beineix’s erotic drama about destructive & doomed lovers, from a visual stand, it works.)

Rozema’s also a fine editor, shaping her scenes to her own unique feel that works as straight drama, music montages and video (the latter for Madeleine), and somewhat oblique shots that are metaphors for thoughts or what she describes as visual representations for poetic words that can’t be translated into functional dialogue. Some of the most arresting are quick shots of horses, Norm falling into a milky surface, and a bloody teacup.

Mark Korven’s score is very lovely, and Rozema’s collaboration to craft Madeleine’s songs work, using lyrics based on poems by Emily Dickinson. (The voice work by Cherie Camp is neatly ethereal.) As Madeleine, Kidder’s screen time is brief, but she has a short radio interview scene with playwright Erika Ritter. City TV’s Ziggy Lorenc plays a TV reporter, and the station makes a slight cameo in a striking zoom-out from a high vantage. (It’s also a possible bet that the scene where Zelda and Norm view video and news footage of Madeleine is in the City TV building on Queen Street.)

Rozema’s commentary doesn’t delve too heavily into the production’s nuances or reception – it reportedly premiered at festivals in a longer 110 version before tightened to 93 mins. – but she does note a scene deleted in the first act tied to an easel seen on the lawn of Norm’s parents. She also describes the script’s progression from a tale about Zelda that introduced minor character Norm to the diva being split into contrasting characters Jane and Madeleine.

White Room may be Rozema’s most divisive work for critics because it leans into genre conventions and pulls away at unlikely junctures, but it isn’t a dud and deserving such a sullied a reputation.

In an interview with The Seventh Art (see YouTube link below), she describes how Canadian critics turned on her, feeling she’d betrayed her calling as a maker of likeable fantasy comedy-dramas – a reaction that sounds almost identical to Death Weekend (1976), the rape-revenge drama by William Fruet that had the ‘beloved’ co-writer of Don Shebib’s Goin’ Down the Road (1970) reportedly fall into extended disfavour with cultural tightwads.




© 2018 Mark R. Hasan





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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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