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‘White Room’ (NR)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 01, 1994

"White Room" is a suburban gothic fairy tale, a work of dark, conflicted magic that might have been cut from "Blue Velvet" by Edward Scissorhands. A film by Canadian Patricia Rozema, it mirrors its American counterparts' attempts to reconcile the naivete of picket-fence myth -- "It couldn't happen here" -- with the reality of modern headlines.

Rozema, who hasn't made a film since 1986's sweetly quirky "I've Heard the Mermaids Singing," seems to have spent the past eight years ripening; her second film is as rich in style, texture and theme as "Mermaids" was thin. The two tales, however, do share a kind of flaky detachment; her protagonists seem to be treading water in a snow globe.

"White Room's" Norm Gentle (Maurice Godin) is trying to break away from his over-protective parents and their perfect blue house in Toronto's suburbs. An aspiring author, he sees all manner of weird images in his head, but he can't seem to transfer them to words on paper. Determined to overcome writer's block, Norm decides to do some research, but his methodology is a bit unusual: He becomes a peeping Tom.

Norm appears to be following in Jeffrey Dahmer's tan hush puppies as he creeps about the dark corners of his neighbor's nicely landscaped yards. But this is not the case, explains the film's narrator (Nicky Guadagni, blessed with a voice like a lullaby): "He didn't call it prowling. For him, it was just knowing . . . [then] he slipped into the darker side of curiosity."

"White Room" wants to have a "Rear Window" just as Rozema wants to confront viewers with their own need to peep. But neither the story nor the hero has that kind of strength. The former is too obviously an intellectual conceit, the latter too weak. Norm is a weenie and as his friend Zelda (Sheila McCarthy) says of one of his plot lines, "You can't have a wimp in the middle of your story. Guys won't identify and girls won't be turned on."

The truth is that Norm is the wimp in his own story: He returns nightly to spy on a woman who lives alone in a glass house, and when she is brutally raped and murdered, he looks on in impotence. Overcome with guilt, he races home to do an odd penance; the next day, he leaves home in search of honor and absolution, a quest that takes him from the blue house to a green garden and then to a white room.

Both garden and room belong to the mysterious Jane (Kate Nelligan), an alluring recluse with a link to the murder victim (Margot Kidder), who turns out to have been a popular singer. Now obsessed with Jane, whom he meets at the singer's funeral, Norm shadows her till he finds her home, a dilapidated gingerbread house overrun with weeds.

At this point, the film itself becomes weedy with metaphors, as the two recover the garden and fill it with exotic plants and fabulous topiary. Love blooms with the azaleas and a happy ending seems all but de facto until Norm inadvertently reveals one of Jane's secrets. Rozema longs to debunk Hollywood endings, but only reconfirms their necessity in trying for one as she does here. In fact, she indulges in an even greater fiction: turning back time to replay the film's events.

"White Room" is by no means a perfectly executed work, but it is a lovely experiment aided by Nelligan and Godin, who make an intoxicating pair. There's also a certain silly pleasure in going all this way to discover that "the world," according to Norm, "is not a very kind place." And you thought you'd live happily ever after.

"White Room" depicts sex and violence.

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