From the first moments in Darrell Wasyk’s The Girl in the White Coat, you feel the bitter taste of poverty.
Based on Nikolai Gogol’s timeless short story The Overcoat, but transposed to modern Montreal, the film chronicles the efforts of Elise, played with angelic innocence by Pascal Montpetit, as she tries to salvage at all costs what is most precious to her—a torn white coat that had been a gift from her beloved father.
“I am a huge fan of old films,” Wasyk said, when asked why he chose Gogol’s story. “I fell in love with the neoclassic genre, a simple story simply told and somewhat fable-like, like Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria or Vittorio de Sica’s The Bicycle Thief.”
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While the premise sounds almost too straightforward, it is deceptively potent in its portrayal of human existence—the seemingly unscalable walls of indifference that exist between haves and have-nots, those who speak different languages or come from different cultures. There is also a sense that reflection and spirituality are as important to a human being as a piece of bread, and sometimes more, when there is nothing left. Throughout the film there is a sprinkling of poetic images that could stand alone, like paintings. There is also a scene of unfettered brutality but with a complete absence of gratuitous violence. The viewer is immediately engaged and by the final scene he is left devastated, it is such a jarring emotional journey.
Since making his first film, H, more than 20 years ago, Wasyk says he has wanted to work with Montpetit ag. “I’m always on the lookout for some kind of vehicle for Pascale and me to work again. I started reading Nikolai Gogol’s short stories and came to The Overcoat. I saw the heart of the character as being very similar to Pascale and thought, ‘What if I take a great liberty and change the character from male to female and start from there?’ I deliberately and consciously wrote the screenplay for Pascale.”
As the film evolved, Wasyk says it became more of an inspiration than an adaptation. “In some points I went way off, but there were other parts where I was absolutely adamant that I stick to the original story.”
At the end of the film there is an interplay between Elise and a child that can truly be called beautiful because of its authenticity and spontaneity. “I’ve worked in the past with children in theatre and TV and would love to do more,” Wasyk says.
The film is in English and French with subtitles and stars some of the biggest names in Quebec film: Loise Marleau, Paul Savoie and Monique Mercure, who portrays the heartless landlady with a liberal dash of venom.