After a lengthy absence from the big screen, Darrell Wasyk, director of the much-lauded H (1990), returns with The Girl in the White Coat, his free-spirited adaptation of Nikolai Gogol’s “The Overcoat,” in which a man is obsessed with his disintegrating winter coat.
Stripped down and reconfigured to present day, chilly Montreal, Gogol’s male hero becomes Elise (H’s Pascale Montpetit), a spinster working minimum wage at a paper factory who pours every dime into her father’s healthcare fees at a private seniors clinic. What little she can set aside is earmarked for a beat-up white coat given to her by her father (Julien Poulin) in better days, when the two ran a small country farm before the onslaught of Alzheimer’s.
Elise is good at one thing - obsessing over simple goals - and her brief attempt to move up in the company for a higher pay grade falls flat, yet she endears herself to manager Cindy / her the boss’ lover (Lita Tresierra), and seems poised to start a more sociable life, exist she completely lacks the tools to succeed.
Her luck is rarely good, as a Christmas bonus both enables the restoration of her coat and curses her to being further obsessed with its new brilliant state. It attracts a hustler (creepy Joey Klein), a stalker, and then disappears in a flash, causing her to go bonkers and reclaim what she thinks is stolen property. When she realizes she’s made a grievous error, guilt seethes within, and ultimately compels her to return the erroneous coat to its rightful owner, which puts her smack in mortal danger.
Wasyk’s film runs long – at 112 mins. it has a substantive midsection which focuses on Elise’s foibles with her pushy landlord (Monique Mercure), and the tailor’s wife (Louise Marleau) who extorts extra monies for what she believes is pure charity work – but Girl has a strange mood which is compelling in spite of scenes designed to mine Montpetit’s performance nuances. Jean-Francois Lord’s cinematography and the chilly winter scenery evoke the original Russian setting largely because Wasyk doesn’t allow for any recognizable structures, logos, or pop culture references, and there’s the oppressive cold which Elise struggles with each morning (and miraculously hasn’t killed her pet canary).
The sound design is naturalistic with little score, and there are dramatic cheats which further Elise’s paranoia, particularly an extended encounter with a duplicitous hustler, and a brief stalking episode that presages the brutal conclusion to Elise’s effort to return a misappropriated coat in the environs of an industrial wasteland. The finale doesn’t provide any concrete resolution, but it does fit in with the film’s dreamy tone, forcing audiences to hypothesize Elise’s fate as a new morning dawns.
Wasyk’s film is maybe a bit too unrelenting in the gloom department, but it’s a rather fascinating character study of a blunted, scarred figure who nevertheless manages to rise up each morning, determined to survive.
Wasyk’s other films include H (1990) and Mustard Bath (1993). Perhaps the best-known adaptations & variations on Gogol’s stories include Danny Kaye’s The Inspector General (1949), Mario Bava’s Black Sunday / La maschera del demonio (1960), Taras Bulba (1962), and Viy (1967).
An interview with writer / director Darrell Wasyk is also available.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan