The romance genre is the pop music equivalent of cinema. It is generic, derivative, and totally devoid of any substance. Romantic movies follow a cookie-cutter formula and rarely deviate from that formula. They almost always have beautiful looking lead actors who meet each other and spend the whole movie overcoming a series of obstacles before finally ending up together. Without fail, they always fall in love by the time the movie is over. If there is a film genre that never contains a film spoiler, romances are it because you will always know how they turn out. So in those rare times when a romantic film does deviate from the norm and gives us something that’s actually somewhat fresh and original, its worth taking notice.

Guinevere is an interesting addition to the genre. Its not a complete success, but it does work on some levels and for that its praiseworthy. Its about a young privileged woman (Sarah Polley) living in San Francisco. As per her parents’ expectations, she is Harvard Law-bound at the end of the summer. However, instead of elation, she dreads spending the rest of her life as an attorney. Hope of an alternative future comes in the form of a wedding photographer (Stephen Rea) at her sister’s wedding. Rea is a bohemian sort who lives in an industrial loft that’s full of books, paintings, and photographs and he spends his evenings in the city’s North Beach district debating politics, literature, and philosophy with other bohemian types. Polley is completely fascinated by the carefree and intellectual nature of this (much older) man and she begins to spend all of her time at his place. At first, their relationship is one of a teacher/mentor and student where she is encouraged to learn the arts. However, this soon turns into a romantic relationship and Polley finds herself turning down Harvard to live with Rea. Given my enjoyment of the film, you can safely assume the story doesn’t end like most romantic films.

Sarah Polley is arguably the most talented actor of her generation. She has mostly eschewed the kinds of roles that most actors her age have taken for more arty, independent (and much more challenging) fare. As a result, she’s not as well known to audiences, but she’s adored by critics and widely regarded as a finely talented actress. I have seen many of her films and I have yet to be disappointed by her. Her style is natural and realistic, which results in performances that veer away from conventional takes on characters. Her performance here is spot-on as the naïve, intelligent young woman who until now has been sheltered from life. Her scenes with Rea during their courtship period is as uncomfortable to watch as it would be in real life if a 47 year old man tried to seduce a 20 year old girl. Instead of attempting to entice Rea, Polley acts just as a girl her age with her experience would act, which is with nervousness and fear. Polley also does a great job in showing us how her experiences transform her as she gets exposed to the harsh realities of life and learns to grow up.

When it comes to Stephen Rea, I don’t have an opinion of him either way. He’s not a bad actor by any means, but neither does he stand out in almost any performance he has done. He seems to give the same type of performance in every film he’s done, which is that of a quiet, brooding, soft spoken fellow. One thing I’ll say about him in this role is that physically he looks like the perfect bohemian with his shaggy curly hair, Irish brogue, and saddened eyes. Although I couldn’t totally see how someone like him could have so many amazingly attractive women fall for him (Jasmine Guy and Gina Gershon to name a few), I can somewhat understand based on the lifestyle he led. When you live in a intellectually vibrant environment like the Bay Area, its not difficult running into people like Stephen Rea’s character. Usually, they also have young attractive women clinging on to every word that comes out of their mouth, which only lasts so long until they realize they’re full of complete shit.

This sort of leads me to the relationship between the girl and the man in this movie. I had an issue with how the film presents this relationship and in order for me to discuss this properly, I’m warning you that SPOILERS lie ahead. By the end of the film, Guinevere attempts to make its audience believe that a much older man taking advantage of a girl is ok. The film never once convinced me that Rea had anything to offer Polley other than a short-lived tryst that was based on Rea’s sexual desires toward someone young. He didn’t really teach her anything about life other than how fucked up his was. She was supposed to learn about the arts and read a lot of books as a condition of staying with him. She decided to take up photography and he was going to help her develop her skills. However, all we see instead is a brief and tumultuous sexual relationship and she paying his rent. He is forced to pawn his camera that he gave to her so she also never gets a chance to take any pictures. In the end, she really doesn’t learn anything from him. There is a powerful and amazing scene where Jean Smart, Polley’s mom, tells Rea off. She sees right through his bullshit and I hoped that Polley would have as well, but she unfortunately doesn’t. Smart’s dialogue scene is one of the best insults I have seen in a very long time.

In the end, I didn’t feel like I had seen enough of the romance to make me buy into the characters’ relationship. On the other hand, what I did see was troubling because instead of a romantic relationship, all I really saw was an older guy getting off on seducing a young girl and practically ruining her life. Although I had issues with the director’s message, I also liked the fact that she didn’t toe the conventional line and give us a typical romantic ending. If for nothing else, the movie is noteworthy for Sarah Polley’s great performance. She once again proves that she is among the best actors of her generation.

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