1998, R, 102 min. Directed by Lisa Cholodenko. Starring Ally Sheedy, Radha Mitchell, Patricia Clarkson, Bill Sage, Anh Duong, Gabriel Mann, Tammy Grimes.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., June 26, 1998
Art, ambition, lesbians, heroin, and ennui all combine into a seductive mix in this compelling feature by first-timer Lisa Cholodenko that won the screenwriting award at this year's Sundance Film Festival. Set among the New York City art world denizens whose casual conversations comfortably encompass such rarefied reference points as Derrida, Fassbinder, and MacArthur grants, High Art is at once a naturalistic study and a style-conscious riff on a specific milieu. Its story follows the reciprocal growth of a somewhat ambiguous relationship between a jaded ex-artist and a career-challenged young ingénue. The beguiling young Australian actress Radha Mitchell plays Syd, a lower-echelon editor at a sleek photography magazine whose functions are really no more than that of a glorified coffee fetcher. Young and conflicted because she knows that even though she has snagged her dream job, she sees little more than a continued future of dead-end subservience and creative lockout. Her live-in boyfriend James (Mann) is sympathetic and encouraging. The transparently thin plot device of a leaky bathtub causes Syd one evening to knock on her upstairs neighbor's door to check on the plumbing. Once inside, Syd becomes intrigued by the world she finds. The apartment above her is a demimonde roost, a hazy, druggy magnet for heroin chic lesbians and their brood. Fascinated by the unique photographs that cover the walls, Syd gradually comes to learn that her upstairs neighbor is actually the formerly renowned photographer Lucy Berliner (Sheedy), who defiantly pulled the plug on her own career 10 years earlier and moved to Germany. Back in New York now with her lover Greta (Clarkson), a drug-addicted former Fassbinder actress whose wearisome references to the dead director are as humorously pretentious and ineffective as if she were still playing a role in one of his ripe melodramas, Lucy is drawn out of her retirement by Syd's interest first in her photographs and gradually in Lucy herself. What the movie explores is the extent to which Syd's attraction to Lucy stems more from the new drug experiences, the undeniable lesbian attraction, or the opportunities for work promotions that her presentation of Lucy's work entails. The lines between all these things are opaque and equivocal. High Art treats these questions with a strikingly naturalistic ease, a quality that's also evident in the lovemaking scenes. But just as it imbues these abstract career and lifestyle questions with a refreshing matter-of-factness, the film also perfectly captures the molten one-beat-behind sensuousness of the drug haze. Sheedy's penetrating depiction of Lucy, the bone-thin seductress despite herself is a career high point for the actress, and Mitchell's Syd is a constant pleasure to watch. Well-drawn also are all the secondary characters -- both the magazine hierarchy and Lucy's layabout pals. Additionally, original music by Shudder to Think lends the film another unique tone. A contrived conclusion mars the veracity of the story's escalating drama and provides an unsatisfying solution to the myriad questions the film raises. But High Art is nevertheless a work that shellacs itself into your consciousness.