Bruce McDonald on the West Coast: The Love Crimes of Gillian Guess (Canada 2004)

By Melnyk, George | CineAction, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Bruce McDonald on the West Coast: The Love Crimes of Gillian Guess (Canada 2004)


Melnyk, George, CineAction


What a pleasure to finally see a new feature from Bruce McDonald! After the aborted Claire's Hat (2001) McDonald again takes on a female hero in his exploration of the dangerous contradictions that inform public consciousness. The Love Crimes of Gillian Guess played the Canadian film festival circuit in 2004 and in 2005 is doing the international circuit prior to wider release. Whether the film will get to the next stage (the art house market) is the big question. If it does, it will be almost 10 years since the theatrical release of his last feature--the engaging music mockumentary, Hard Core Logo.

At a Vancouver murder trial in the mid-1990s a female juror named Gillian Guess caused a scandal (and committed a crime) while serving on the jury, when she had an affair with the accused, Peter Gill. He was later acquitted. Angus Fraser, who was a co-screenwriter on Lynne Stopkewich's 1996 debut drama Kissed, has written an amazing script, which, in McDonald's skillful hands, seamlessly weaves together a variety of film genres-comedy, animation, drama and even the musical. The result is a totally unconventional, utterly surrealistic, postmodern frolic that makes it difficult for normal audiences to suspend their disbelief. My favourite image from the film is the magnificent blush red, disembodied lips that fill the screen like a moving work of pop art. This new film is a stylistic leap for McDonald that keeps the audience involved intellectually rather than emotionally, though there are a number of good laughs. He uses comedy to deconstruct our precious sense of reality.

On the surface the film portrays Gillian Guess (Joely Collins) defending her actions in the arena of public opinion, when she appears on a television celebrity talk-show. Bobby Tomahawk (Hugh Dillon) plays the vampirish host and his studio audience is filled with sari-dressed Indo-Canadian women. Intercut with scenes from her brutally sarcastic television interrogation are scenes from the trial itself. Since television is not allowed to record trials, McDonald stages the trial as a Perry Mason courtroom drama, in which he makes us aware of its complete artificiality. Added to this thread are various flashbacks to Guess's childhood and coming-of-age adventures and scenes of her single parent life with her own two daughters. As a result there are at least four realities at play in the film, as well as other sequences that fantasize her developing relationship with the accused and an animated narration of the killing itself presented by the prosecutor, which turns into a cartoon, comic-book account.

McDonald's film is an outstanding piece of social criticism, a satire on the justice system, but more importantly, a pointed attack on the media and television and its polarizing culture of good guys and bad guys. In a number of scenes in the film old American television crime programs appear, mirroring the current narrative with their own cliches. The programs themselves point to the stereotypical characterization that determines public morality, social consciousness and allowable discourse. That most of this influence is American only adds insult to injury. Gillian Guess appears throughout the film dressed as a kind of American Barbie Doll figure, a cultural product that fantasizes the female persona as a sexual object and an icon of beauty. When a real female uses this culturally-created power in her interests, McDonald tells us, she is pilloried as the she-devil, the evil femme fatale that society must expunge. McDonald has already played with this theme in Highway 61, when his female protagonist changes her hair colour to red (the same colour code now used by Ms. Guess in her dress) and turns the patriarchal world upside down by taking charge.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

"It's all made up like a movie," the Peter Gill character tells Gillian as he tries to convince her of his innocence. …

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