I'm not going to venture what it means, yet the zeitgeist is undeniable: the three best, most mature American features of 1999 - Election, American Beauty, and now, the quite wonderful Guinevere - are Lolita variants, mapping the obsessions of a wigged-out middle-aged man (whose career, and life, are careening out of control) for a blonde teenage girl. In Election, the sexual stuff between Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon becomes diverted, and sublimated, in high-school power plays. In American Beauty, Kevin Spacey gets to second base with Mena Suvari before, in a moment of philosophic (and sentimental?) self-awareness, he realizes that bedding this virginal teenager is beside the point. Only Guinevere carries through, as its fifty-something guy, Connie (reliable Stephen Rea), and twenty-year old female, Harper (radiant Sarah Polley), not only screw but, for a precarious time, live together.
Harper's epiphany comes early in Guinevere: dolling up for her sister's society wedding, she notes identical pearls about the necks of her mother, sister, herself. What's wrong with this straightlaced picture? She's not sure (she's not sure of anything), but there are stirrings that there's more to life than what's ahead: white-bred, pedigreed-girl Harvard Law School.
Will she become the latest in a family line of wealthy San Francisco attorneys? Harper gets derailed by Connie, the disheveled, uncombed photographer hired for the staid wedding. He invites her to his loft, where he practices his true vocation: "art" photography. They have sex, she moves in, mesmerized by the artistic life, open-mouthed with excitement upon spending an evening in a pub with Connie and his weighty friends. Harper is handed an artist's vocation, too, becoming Connie's assistant. Someday, she'll actually take her own photographs.
What's wrong with this alternative picture? Guinevere's savvy writer-director Audrey Wells doesn't need to spell out that Connie's little painter-photographer-writer colony are repeating conversations that went out in the '50s with the Cedar Tavern. Nor does she tell us (we glimpse at his work) that Connie is a little-talent, depressingly derivative photographer. As for Harper being his assistant, that's a blatantly sexist arrangement. As for Connie persuading Harper she's artistic, we recognize immediately his wanting to get into her pants.
Their relationship is flawed and perhaps fucked up, and there's that cavernous thirty-and-more years age disparity. And yet, Guinevere accomplishes something deeply nonconformist: tapping into a vein of tenderness, and probably even "true love," for this unlikely couple. Nobody before Connie has believed in Harper. If she's ever going to become a true artist, it will happens only because she has taken to heart Connie's B.S.
And Connie gets things too: a cute young chick, and someone who believes naively he is a major creator. For a time, their relationship, filmmaker Wells indicates, is pretty OK, and mutually beneficial. No big deal that he's had a series of young girlfriends, and they're all called Guinevere, his private name for Harper. No matter that Harper's cool, devilish mother (Jean Smart) is exactly on target when she looks Connie in the eye and, castratingly, lectures him how he requires the "awe" of young women.
Does Guinevere work for you? The test is simple: when Harper and Connie go bust, how do you feel? I felt very, very sad. Stephen Rea is splendid as Connie, willing to give all to playing a low-esteem loser. Sarah Polley is a revelation again, just as in The Sweet Hereafter and Go. She can do anything, and the camera adores her high cheekbones, almond eyes, and ferocious intelligence. She's like watching young Katharine Hepburn in the early 1930s, the budding of a truly major screen presence.
And hooray for screenwriter and first-time filmmaker, Audrey Wells, scenarist also of The Truth About Cats and Dogs, whom I interviewed recently at the Toronto International Film Festival. Was she scared, I wondered, the first day of the shoot?
"When you have worked so hard and long that you feel you really deserve it, you are not nervous," Wells replied. "I've been a screenwriter for ten years, I've been on a lot of movie sets, I've heard my dialogue performed many times. And the people behind this movie really appreciated each other. I feel like I'm a co-parent, with my cinematographer, Chuck Minsky, my editor, my composer, my production designer.
"If I see on credits ' A Film By,' I want to strangle people. I don't subscribe to the 'auteur' theory. When I wrote this movie, I was alone in my room. When I directed, I was surrounded by a hundred experienced, brilliant people, They offered me a banquet.
"Chuck lights beautifully. We agreed that this was a nostalgic movie told in hindsight. We wanted to capture a romantic look. Sarah should have pink cheeks! Chuck is a workhorse. He was the first guy up and the last to leave the set. Everyone says, 'If your Director of Photography quits on you, you are fucked.' He never quit.
"And the editor, Dody Dorn, is a genius. who can see a scene working in twenty different ways and has a work ethic to show the different ways. She'd give blood over whether a frame stays or not, and she never got bored or lost.
"My strength as a director? I'm grateful. I'm calm, I let other people shine. That's it."
Wells, wound up, was ready to tell me about every tech person on her movie. I interrupted her flow of generosity to get to Guinevere. How does she, the creator, feel about the Connie-Harper relationship?
"I think they truly love each other." Wells said. She paused and sighed. "It's so sad. The movie continues to be sad for the people who made it. Because even the most intense love is not always lasting. You have to say goodbye."
I also talked to Sarah Polley, who was emphatic that there is nothing at all in the abstract wrong with a relationship between a 20-year-old woman and a 55-year-old man. "Could Connie and Harper have gone on forever and ever? I don't think the age difference broke them up. That's trite and easy. It's more about him being a tyrant and not letting her breathe.
"I think a lot of people are angry that he's not being punished, but I don't see what he should be punished for. I consider myself a really passionate feminist, but feminism toward people my age has become a kind of chauvinism, a condescending belief - so middle-class and white! - that girls need to be protected. But it doesn't make sense to see Harper as some sniveling victim. She finds strength in this situation, and can forgive.
"More men hate Connie than women. They find nothing redeeming in him and can't understand why she's attracted to him. But people who have been in this kind of relationship feel more generous to Guinevere than those who haven't."
Polley, who is a left-wing political activist off-screen, is proud that Guinevere espouses such an unpopular morality for the family-values North American 1990s. "Filmmakers are in a race with the audience to pass moral judgment," Polley said. "It's a creepy kind of regression."
(Boston Phoenix, September, 1999)