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[whitespace] Sarah Polley
Photograph by Will McGarry

The Eyes Have It: Sarah Polley gives a star-making performance in 'Guinevere.'

Geezer Meets Girl

'Guinevere' appeals to female outrage about old goats who chase young chicks

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 was the child Sally Salt in Gilliam's 1989 Adventures of Baron Munchausen; she was the heart of last year'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 Guinevere because Polley looks as pale, slim and red-headed as a pre-Raphaelite beauty, like the Arthurian figures painted by Rossetti and Burne-Jones.

Connie takes over the girl's life. He convinces her to avoid Harvard Law School and become his lover and pupil. Harper learns something of the craft of photography. Guinevere gives us reference to the affair between the elder photographer 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 boheme. The visuals are right, if not the dialogue. Especially groanworthy chat can be heard in the early scenes of a barroom literary debate. (The exterior is Spec's in North Beach, but the interiors are a set.) It's clear that 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, Gershon 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 mother, Deborah (Jean Smart). It would be gross exaggeration to describe Deborah as anything but a Pacific Heights rich bitch: snide, cold, sexually frustrated. The mother turns up at Connie's studio to dress her daughter down about going to live 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.

Connie has no answer for her.

Which amazed me. Being an artist in a city like San Francisco entails being thoroughly kicked around by rich people. Think of all the artists, musicians and writers who have done their best to keep their hopes alive in one of the most expensive, crowded and competitive cities on this planet. Don't they all have some back-talk boiling in their hearts, just ready to be tapped? Wells' endorsement of the protective mom's tantrum shows the corniness underneath Guinevere's sophistication.

Wells, a first-time director 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 was looking for realism. But she was 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 old goats and young chicks paired on screen. 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 keeps coming earlier every year: Connie is only 50.) The romance especially doesn't need to be justified by the facile Freudian gaffe Welles uses--a few lines about how Harper/Guinevere'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 which brands everyone who has lived here. Wells is too emotional about her bad choices for a critic to call Guinevere calculating--this film is heartfelt, it's just under-brained. And the graceful, sentimental ending helps. Guinevere also sports a lovely beginning: at a wedding, Polley's 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 Christine 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 mind. What angers me about Guinevere is the suggestion that maturity comes even later for a woman than 21 years.

Ever wonder whatever happened to romantic movies? Maybe the problem is that they all have to be therapeutic--it seems romantic films now have to be safe and sane, like those uninspiring kind of fireworks sold to children .

Guinevere (R; 104 min.), directed and written by Audrey Wells, produced by Jonathan King and Brad Weston, and starring Sarah Polley, Stephen Rea, Jean Smart and Gina Gershon, plays this month at selected theaters.

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From the September 27, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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