Film Scouts and Newsweek at Sundance 1999


by Debra Lass

In "Guinevere", a little gem of a character study written and directed by Audrey Wells ("The Truth About Cats and Dogs"), Harper Sloane (Sarah Polley) is an unformed virginal girl of twenty from a well-off San Francisco family in which everyone becomes a lawyer. Harper is resigned to her dismal future until she meets Cornelius Fitzpatrick (Stephen Rea), an artiste about thirty years her senior, who is photographing her sister's wedding. They are immediately simpatico, mainly because "Connie" has the uncanny ability to sense that Harper desperately needs to be seen and heard on her own terms. Before you can say cheese, Harper has moved in with Connie who christens her his "Guinevere."

While Connie may identify with the fabled King Arthur who loses his ladylove to the younger Lancelot, he also brings to mind the mythical Pygmalion who, so displeased with womankind, sculpted his ideal, bedecked her with finery, and then prayed to the gods to awaken her so that they might wed. In contrast, Connie sees great potential in all women - particularly young women. He delights in awakening Harper's sexual and artistic passions, stripping her of the trappings of her bourgeois upbringing and adorning her with ideas that set her free. And Harper delights in the attention. This arrangement is mutually blissful for the pair until a few cracks begin to show in the world they have created. For instance, Connie has a serious drinking problem that often gets in the way of work, and Harper discovers that she is living with a serial-Svengali who has had a string of Guineveres before her. Yet despite the fact that the sculptor, in this case, has feet of clay, Harper remains loyal to Connie, sees only the best in him, refuses to let her heart grow cynical. It is Connie who, in fulfillment of his own prophecy, forces Harper to acknowledge that his self-destructive behavior has doomed the relationship from the start.

Ms. Polley and Mr. Rea are splendid in their complex roles, turning in solid, poignant performances. Sandra Oh is hilarious as "Cindy," the Guinevere that precedes Harper, and Jean Smart as Harper's mother is particularly biting when she shows up unexpectedly at Connie's loft and confronts the couple. She asks what it is he sees in a 20-year old girl that he doesn't find in a woman his own age, then answers her own question when she continues that it is not firm flesh that Connie craves, but to be held in awe. For who else would hold a middle-aged, bohemian wedding photographer in awe but a naïve young girl? But possibly what Connie craves is neither gender- nor age-specific, but something more akin to that unfathomable yearning that fuels the addict and the artist. And that is to know a bit of heaven - to exist in a state of perfect grace free of cynicism and be forgiven one's shortcomings - a blessing that so often only the young and pure-of-heart can bestow. What makes "Guinevere" so appealing is that the film is not so much about a clichéd May-December romance as it is about the nature of love and learning, forgiveness and the resilience of the heart.

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