It's commonplace in contemporary cinema to see male stars in their 50s
or 60s paired with much younger female costars. It's not unusual to see
such a match in the real world, especially when the man is extremely
wealthy. But there's another kind of May-December romance that pops up
frequently in life and not so frequently in the movies--the mentor-student
relationship, which is creepy in some ways and yet charged with emotion and
meaning for the parties involved.
Audrey Wells made a name for herself a few years ago with her screenplay
for The Truth About Cats and Dogs, a knowing (if superficial) look
at how standards of female beauty undercut the sisterhood. Her directorial
debut, Guinevere, is a sensitive (if again superficial) portrait of
the dynamic between a sage older artist and the naive young woman who
confuses a desire to learn with just plain desire.
The wan young Canadian actress Sarah Polley, who made an impact in
The Sweet Hereafter and Go, stars as Harper Sloane, the
insecure youngest daughter in a family of well-to-do, mean-spirited
lawyers. Instead of entering Harvard, Harper hooks up with her sister's
wedding photographer, a doe-eyed, self-possessed Irishman who calls her
Stephen Rea plays the photographer, Cornelius "Connie" Fitzpatrick, who
promises "Guinevere" that he can teach her the secrets of art and life.
Harper is smart enough to know that she's living out a clich, but she can't
resist the attention--or the feeling that she's finally learning something
useful. Even when she learns that she's the latest in a string of
"Guineveres," Harper still wants to go where the lesson plan takes her.
For most of Guinevere, Wells keeps us similarly fascinated. How
much is Connie's manipulation intentional, and how much is just a result of
his own insecurity? Who's using who? But the film's momentum runs out about
the same time that its keen observations do. In the final half-hour, Wells
drops her amused detachment, and we begin to see Connie and Harper as
little more than pathetic losers with nothing real to offer each other (or
Then there's an abrupt "four year later" coda, in which the "Guineveres"
gather for a sort of class reunion. There's an unfortunate smugness to this
finale, as Wells stops sharing the attraction and repulsion inherent in a
mentor-student romance and instead presents her characters as fully formed
products of the experience. The director seems to be saying that the only
way to understand this situation is to live through it. The funny thing is,
for awhile, thanks to Wells, we were.