Review: 'Guinevere' a crash course in deception
October 1, 1999
By Reviewer Paul Tatara
(CNN) -- Sarah Polley is so easily the best young film actress of recent years, comparing her to people like Neve Campbell and Reese Witherspoon is almost comical. Polley's vengeful gaze is the icing on the considerable cake of Atom Egoyan's "The Sweet Hereafter" (1997). Her ensuing film appearances, though not as meaty, have done nothing to lessen her reputation.
Now she gets her first real starring role in writer-director Audrey Wells' "Guinevere," and the results are admirable, if somewhat inconsistent.
Polley so effortlessly projects burning intelligence that she has trouble maintaining the empty gaze required to play a 20-year-old who's trying to establish some passion in her rudderless life.
Polley stars as Harper Sloane, a well-to-do young woman whose upper-class family members have smoothed over the rough edges of their existence to the point that they have no real hope of connecting with each other.
Her cold-hearted mother (Jean Smart, in an unexpectedly impressive supporting performance) views Harper as a washout before she's even had a chance to enter the world. And Harper's father and older sister are Electra-complex poster children, delicately fawning over each other to a degree that would leave Sigmund Freud chuckling into his pipe.
This is all established in the first sequence, at the sister's wedding reception. Harper is so unsure of herself, she flits around the other guests like a wounded sparrow. Polley, perhaps emoting a bit too rigorously, casts her eyes downward and recoils from the slightest confrontation. Harper is a walking billboard for her own vulnerability, and the shark who moves in for the kill is Connie (Stephen Rea), a struggling photographer who's making a quick buck shooting pictures of the wedding.
After Harper tells Connie "I don't like to be looked at," the older man thoughtfully positions her just beyond the frame of the various wedding photos. But one picture, an elegant portrait of the beautiful, forlorn girl staring out a window by herself, shocks Harper into a moment of self-recognition. She cautiously approaches Connie at his studio, and he starts weaving a web of flattery and encouragement that eventually entraps her.
Before long, Harper informs her uninterested parents that she's moving in with some friends in the city. But she actually shacks up with Connie, a man more than twice her age. He nicknames her "Guinevere," and proceeds to give her lessons in photography, art history and -- in a rather vicious way -- life. It's obvious, though, that what he's most interested in is sex and the thrill of uncomplicated emotional manipulation.
Getting to know you
The film is at its strongest in the early going, when we're first getting to know Harper. Her timid equilibrium is appealing; you sense that it won't take much for her to get her footing. In the latter stages, though, it's tough to determine how we're supposed to feel about Connie.
It's pretty apparent from the start that he isn't the great artist he pretends to be for Harper. And it's difficult to fathom what an unspeakably gorgeous young blossom like Polley would see in Rea, who, let's face it, is just this side of creepy. Rea is more animated here than usual, and he's a very good actor. But when he makes eyes at Harper, you expect her to run from the building rather than let him softly unsnap her Levis.
Harper quickly comes to find -- here's a big surprise -- that she isn't the first "Guinevere." There have been several before her, all young, talented women Connie promised to "school" if they'd just give him a five-year commitment (none of them ever make it through the full five years). One of the former pupils is played by Gina Gershon, who brings a forthright, cynical edge to her role. It's a shame she isn't given more screen time.
Again, though, even Gershon's character views Connie as a harmless sidetrack in her development. Wells wants us to believe that Connie is teaching Harper things about life that she couldn't learn without his help, and that simply isn't true. Frankly, it's an outright lie.
She's nowhere near an idiot, and every person on Earth eventually learns about sexual exploitation, one way or another. You don't have to be force-fed the lesson before your 21st birthday, even if the person doing the feeding allows you to read his books and set up the lights at his photo sessions.
Smart and not-so-Smart
The film often flip-flops between contrivance and hard-hitting honesty. There's a scene at the end in which Connie's now-mature victims gather to "salute" his loutishness, and it's borderline preposterous.
But another scene, in which Smart as Harper's mother suddenly confronts the man who's seduced her 20-year-old daughter, is the most unflinching passage in a commercial film this year. Smart coolly stares down Rea, seeing right through his role's bohemian veneer, and the tension shoots into the stratosphere.
Her monologue, in which she annihilates Connie by loudly announcing his shortcomings in front of Harper, is a testament to what truly great screenwriting can accomplish. Smart lays it on the line, giving voice to every woman over 40 who's been brushed aside for a younger version of herself.
On the basis of this scene alone, it's obvious that Wells will make better films than "Guinevere." But even with its flaws, this is a solid, worthwhile debut.
"Guinevere" is a sometimes uneasy amalgamation of honesty and plain old phony baloney. There's bad language, brief nudity and one seduction scene that's pretty hot and heavy. Smart deserves an Oscar nomination for her work here. She's tremendous. The film's jazz soundtrack puts Thelonious Monk's personalized rhythmic sense to commendable use. Rated R. 104 minutes.
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