Guinevere wants to be many things at once, but comes across largely as an excuse to stare at its remarkable star, Sarah Polley, and to revel in the many shades of her beauty: Sarah sullen, Sarah drunk, Sarah confused, Sarah confident. In fact, 24 hours after seeing this film, what I remember most about it are Polley's eyes: five feet wide and unfathomably deep, as if she had glass doors at the back leading to other realms, other doors. Polley may have played it cool in Go, allowing herself to be upstaged by pretty Katie Holmes, but Guinevere costar Stephen Rea doesn't stand a chance. There's no malice or ego in this coup, mind you; Polley's just doing what she was born to do.
Of course, there's plenty of calculation at work here, too. The directorial debut of screenwriter Audrey Wells (The Truth About Cats and Dogs), Guinevere is a movie about movies--and about ways of seeing--as much as it is a character study. From the opening-credit scene, wherein bits of Polley's naked body appear in artful black-and-white photographs, we're prepared to go on autopilot and just ogle. Go ahead and stare, the film seems to say. I dare you not to. And when Polley's character, Harper, an insecure 19-year-old, meets an appreciative fiftysomething photographer named Connie (Stephen Rea), the oglers find a conspirator. Manhattan and Lolita fans, take note.
Harper comes from a rich San Francisco family; her parents, both lawyers, hate each other quietly, and dote on their older daughter, also a lawyer. Harper is expected to attend Harvard law school in the fall, but after meeting Connie, her sister's wedding photographer, she changes her mind. He's a transplanted Irishman who drinks Jameson's, lives in a cozy loft full of photographs and old books, and recognizes her in a way no one else has thus far. When she first visits him at home, she doesn't quite recognize the seamstress in the factory next to his loft, who stares at her knowingly, or the teary-eyed young woman leaving the apartment, bags in hand. Then again, maybe she does.
Electra complex in place, Harper moves in and takes up the study of photography and literature under Connie's tutelage. (Anyone else remember Barbara Hershey and Max Von Sydow in Hannah and Her Sisters?) The seduction scene is perfect: Harper laughing spastically as he touches her arm and asks her to sit across the room so he can "look at [her] form." She has always hated to be watched, because, she imagines, no one has ever approved of what they saw; with this man, it seems, exposure offers the delicious vertigo of complete acceptance. (The audience is hardly surprised to learn straight away that she is only the latest in a series of ingénues he has seduced with the same cheesy moves and the same pet name, Guinevere.)
Guinevere tries to respond gracefully to the art that inspired it: In its attention to silence and nonverbal expression, it reminds one of Bergman and of Virginia Woolf. In other moments, it cues Woody Allen, while still others--Harper lying on Connie's lap on the couch, for instance--are pure Nabokov. Wells is having fun, at least for those of us who find Allen's realm ultimately claustrophobic, and for anyone who hated Adrian Lyne's Lolita. Where Lyne is unable ever to give Lolita her own goddamn inner life, much less a happy ending, and Allen fails to question his own Humbert-like compulsions, Wells has something trickier in mind. Yes, this film has a visual life that is totally enamored with this girl's taut young bod. Yes, Harper and all the other Guineveres are unbelievably sympathetic toward this monster. But the film itself--that is, Wells--achieves a revenge against him that is so masterful, it looks like mercy.
Not to say this is a great movie. After a nifty, swift first half, it plods until the viewer stops caring who's exploiting whom and starts wishing for a fast-forward button. And, ungrateful as it sounds, I guess I'm getting tired of films that hang their very souls on the redemptive image of a woman holding a camera for the first time. (See also: sex, lies and videotape; Orlando; The Governess.) Women have had cameras for a while now. It's utterly fabulous and totally necessary, but it's only the beginning of the story. What if we put that novelty to rest, finally, and asked the much more intriguing--and perilous--question: What comes next?