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[whitespace] Sarah Polley and Steven Rea

The Eyes Have It: Sarah Polley and Steven Rea make an unlikely couple in 'Guinevere.'

An Affair to Forget

First-time writer/director Audrey Wells protests way too much in the May/December romance 'Guinevere'

By Richard von Busack

IF EVER I SAW a star-making performance, it's Sarah Polley's role in Guinevere. She's due for the attention. Previously, Polley played the child Sally Salt in Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen; she was the heart of 1997's best movie, The Sweet Hereafter; and she recently played the delightfully pugnacious druggy cashier in Go.

Guinevere is Polley's first romantic role, as a young girl seduced by an aging, seedy San Francisco photographer (Stephen Rea). Polley's character is named Harper. The photographer, Cornelius--called Connie--gives Harper the pet name Guinevere. Later we learn that Connie routinely calls all the women in his life Guinevere. At first, though, we can guess that Connie uses the nickname because Polley looks as pale, slim and redheaded as a pre-Raphaelite beauty.

Connie takes over the girl's life, convincing her to skip Harvard Law School and become his lover and pupil instead. Guinevere references the affair between the elder photographer Alfred Steiglitz and the young Georgia O'Keeffe. But Guinevere isn't about art--you scarcely see any of Connie's work. The film is really a romance set against today's San Francisco vie bohème.

The visuals are right, if not the dialogue. Especially groanworthy chat can be heard in a barroom literary debate. Clearly, director/writer Audrey Wells has only the most speculative idea of what intellectuals might talk about.

Among the barroom gang is Billie (Gina Gershon), who we can tell is Connie's discarded, still-seething lover. Later, Billie gives the young Harper an earful, explaining to the girl that she's not the first "Guinevere" and won't be the last.

More conflict arrives in the form of Harper's snide, cold, sexually frustrated mother, Deborah (Jean Smart). The mother turns up at Connie's studio to dress her daughter down about living with an artist. She attacks Connie about going after young girls, in a speech that's bound to be a crowd-pleaser. In fact, Smart's speech is bad enough to be Oscar material.

FIRST-TIME DIRECTOR Wells, who wrote the script for The Truth About Cats and Dogs, does a too-studious job of taking in Connie's frailties: his bad teeth, his hard drinking, his failure to plan for a disastrous trip the couple takes to L.A. Wells is looking for realism, but she is so careful about recording Connie's flaws that she fails to establish the romance.

I understand that it's an outrage to a lot of the women in the audience to see the pairing of old goats and young chicks onscreen. As a critic, I've complained about it over the years. But when the chemistry works, it doesn't have to be explained.

Wells' terror about the gap in age between Harper and Connie is reflected in what the publicity for Guinevere persists in calling a "May/December romance." (December comes earlier every year: Connie is only 50!) The romance especially doesn't need to be justified by the facile Freudian gaffe Wells uses--a few lines about how Harper's father neglects her.

Guinevere is exotic enough to be an art-house hit. Rea's attractive melancholy matches the scenery of a gorgeous, gray city that brands everyone who has lived here. Wells is too emotional about Harper's bad choices to call Guinevere calculating. This film is heartfelt--it's just underbrained.

The graceful, sentimental ending helps, and Guinevere also sports a lovely beginning. At a wedding, Harper tries to get drunk alone. Connie, who is working as a wedding photographer, bumps into her. Harper is muttering "fuck fuck fuck" to herself. He replies, "I know that song. Ever tried singing it real loud?"

Polley is as pretty as the young Uma Thurman and as prettily macabre as Christina Ricci, and there never seems anything forced about her innocence. But Guinevere overplays that innocence. The film keeps apologizing for showing us the romance of an older man hitting on a younger woman, when the woman is, after all, 21 and presumably old enough to know her own mind. What angers me about Guinevere is the suggestion that maturity comes even later for a woman than 21 years.

Ever wonder what happened to romantic movies? Maybe the problem is that they all have to be therapeutic. It seems that nowadays romantic films have to be safe and sane, like those uninspiring kinds of fireworks sold to children.

Guinevere (R; 104 min.), directed and written by Audrey Wells, photographed by Charles Minsky and starring Sarah Polley, Stephen Rea and Gina Gerson, opens Friday at Camera 3 in San Jose.

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From the October 28-November 3, 1999 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 1999 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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