MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1998
Stars : Ally Sheedy (Lucy Berliner), Radha Mitchell (Syd), Patricia Clarkson (Greta), Gabriel Mann (James), Bill Sage (Arnie), Ahn Duong (Dominique), Tammy Grimes (Vera), David Thornton (Harry)
"High Art" is an oddly unaffecting, dark character drama about a naive young woman who becomes infatuated with a once-celebrated photographer who left the art scene 10 years earlier. The film marks the writing/directing debut of Lisa Cholodenko, an assistant editor on numerous Hollywood films, and there is no doubt that Cholodenko has talent as a director. "High Art" is filmed with a kind of absorbing, gritty naturalism that draws the viewer into the intimacy of the moment. Unfortunately, her screenplay presents the viewer with a host of unattractive characters who never manage to transcend their cliché heroin-chic grunginess, and hence are never of much interest.
Australian actress Radha Mitchell plays Syd, a 24-year-old assistant magazine editor at a high-profile photography magazine called "Frame." On the surface, she appears to have a good job and a promising career, although her superior editors, Harry (David Thornton) and Dominique (Ahn Duong) often treat her like a secretary. But worse than that, she is living with her utterly humdrum boyfriend, James, who is played by Gabriel Mann as a character just slightly more fascinating than dirt. The point is to show that Syd is caught in a life that is pleasing on the exterior and dull at its heart, but Cholodenko overplays the hand with face-slapping obviousness.
Syd finds the spark of life in the form of Lucy Berliner (Ally Sheedy), a once-great photographer who literally disappeared 10 years earlier to spare herself the soul-deadening extremes of the high-profile art world. Lucy lives with her drug-addicted lover, Greta (Patricia Clarkson), a sleazy German actress who used to star in Rainer Fassbinder films, and an assortment of other junkies and hangers-on who seem to have no purpose other than to surround Lucy and indicate that she is someone of importance who draws others to her.
Lucy certainly attracts Syd, who convinces her to come out of obscurity and shoot a spread for "Frame." As they begin working together, Syd becomes more and more infatuated with Lucy, and soon she is hanging out in her apartment, snorting heroin, and generally ignoring her boring-as-wallpaper boyfriend, which should be of dramatic importance, but isn't. The relationship between Syd and Lucy gradually grows into something sexual, although there is little meaningful explanation its growth and development.
Cholodenko does an excellent job of depicting the sexual sequences, of which the film has many. She keeps these scenes natural and unsensational, so they maintain their integrity as scenes of two people trying to connect on some level. The only time there ever is a sexual connection is between Lucy and Syd, but Cholodenko leaves the motives and reasoning in their relationship ambiguous, thus allowing the audience to interpret Syd's intimacies with Lucy as her having found either her inner lesbian or something purer that is so unique it transcends sexuality.
It is precisely at this point that "High Art" is at its most perplexing. It is, by all accounts, a character study, but we have little to explain these peculiar people. Cholodenko gives us surface realities, such as introducing Lucy's mother (Tammy Grimes) to show she is rich and thus explain how Lucy has survived for the last 10 years without working. We know little or nothing about Syd, except that she is alternately naive, ambitious, and shy. Radha Mitchell gives a good performance, but she never manages to make us truly care about Syd because she remains so distant and contradictory.
As Lucy, Ally Sheedy gives a breakthrough performance that is often shocking in its frankness. For those who remembers Sheedy in '80s-era Brat Pack movies like "Oxford Blues" (1985) and "St. Elmo's Fire" (1985), it is quite surprising to see her tense, saddened face and slumping, gaunt body. Like Syd, Lucy is also a contradictory character, someone who doesn't want to "sell out" her art, yet wastes her talents living with degenerates. Just as there is no explaining why Syd would be with someone as dull as James, there is no reason why Lucy would be with someone as self-absorbed and self-destructive as Greta, unless you consider that it's easier to justify Syd and Lucy leaving their respective lovers for each other if those lovers are not worth staying with.
"High Art" is the kind of the film that leaves you wishing for more. You want more information about the characters. You want to see them in different situations and surroundings. And you certainly want something more from the ending than the cynical, downbeat, inexplicable one Cholodenko leaves us with. You can feel "High Art" trying to make some kind of grand statement about life, art, and relationships, but the separate pieces never come together into the absorbing whole it's meant to be.
©1998 James Kendrick