Guinevere [1999]

Sarah Polley has built a reputation on her eerie calm--most of her performances seem dominated by an icy, implacable stare. That's why her performance in Guinevere is such a revelation. Polley plays Harper, a young woman from a wealthy but troubled family who's on the verge of a nervous breakdown. At her older sister's wedding, she meets Connie (Stephen Rea), a photographer as old as her parents, with whom she begins an affair. Their relationship--partly an education in the arts, partly an escape from the repression of her family--takes a variety of twists and turns, none of them predictable, all of them questionable, all of them genuine. The movie is clear-eyed about the situation: Connie isn't idealized, and is in many ways a creepy older man, neurotic and self-aggrandizing, but he also offers a kind of emotional support that Harper has never had. Whenever the movie seems to be turning into some bohemian fantasy, something happens that returns it to earth, sometimes with an uncomfortable jolt. It's unsettling, insightful, charming, scary, absurd, and all too real. All the performances are excellent--Jean Smart, as Harper's mother, is smart and cuttingly bitter; Rea is by turns sweet and manipulative, honest and self-deluded. But above all, Polley displays a combination of vulnerability and steely determination that makes Guinevere utterly compelling. The ending is curious--I still haven't made up my mind about it. But for a movie as committed to the contradictions of human relationships as this one, there's nothing wrong with that. --Bret Fetzer

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