High Art

Universal Home Video,

Lisa Cholodenko

Radha Mitchell,
Ally Sheedy,
Patricia Clarkson,
Gabriel Mann,
Charis Michelsen
David Thornton,
Anh Duong,
Helen Mendes
Bill Sage

Rated R, 101 minutes

Through A Lens Darkly
by Michael D. Klemm
Posted online, March 2010

Lesbians, the Manhattan art scene and heroin are the ingredients of High Art, a superb feature film debut from 1998, written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko (Laurel Canyon). Radha Mitchell stars as Syd, a young woman who works at an art magazine called Frame. Though she has just been promoted to Assistant Editor, her newfound status still entails doing the grunt work and getting coffee for her superiors. Her live-in boy friend, James (Gabriel Mitchell), complains that they continue to treat her like an intern, and this sparks friction between them.

A chance meeting with the upstairs neighbors, in reaction to water dripping from the bathroom ceiling, sets the plot in motion. Syd meets Lucy (Ally Sheedy), her partner Greta (Patricia Clarkson), and an entourage stoned on heroin. Syd is impressed by Lucy's photographs that hang all over the apartment. On a second visit, Syd tells Lucy that she would like to submit her work to the senior editors at Frame. Syd recognizes her raw talent and she sees this as the ticket to impressing her bosses.

She has her work cut out for her at first. Harry (David Thornton) shows no interest in even looking at the pictures, but co-editor Dominique (Anh Duong) recognizes the name Lucy Berliner. As a young photographer, Lucy had staked her reputation and then inexplicably, and belligerently, dropped off the map. Syd has gotten Dominique's attention and now she has to lure Lucy to the magazine by offering her the cover. Lucy seems bored by it all but says, "I haven't been deconstructed in a long time." She agrees, provided that Syd is allowed to be her editor. The connection between the two women soon evolves from a professional artistic relationship to a sexual one.

Functioning as a catalyst for drama, and disaster, is Lucy's girlfriend. Greta is a washed up German actress who once worked with Fassbinder but apparently hasn't appeared in films since. She constantly rehashes past glories and drops the late director's name whenever she can. (She was supposed to be in Berlin Alexanderplatz "but Hannah got the part instead.") Greta is also a major league heroin addict and she is - rightly, as it turns out - threatened by and jealous of the young woman who is suddenly playing a major role in her partner's life.
Despite Syd's sudden attraction to Lucy, High Art is not a coming out film. Other dynamics are at work and genders are actually incidental. Syd doesn't show any signs of having been attracted to women before. Maybe it's the heroin. Maybe the allure is cerebral, or perhaps it's because her boyfriend thinks her job is frivolous and they are drifting apart. Meanwhile James is also feeing threatened; he doesn't like it when a few of the stoners in the upstairs apartment tell him that they didn't know that Syd had a boyfriend, and another says that Syd is in the bedroom with the hostess. When he finally confronts her, she doesn't know what her feelings are for Lucy Berliner. Is she falling in love or is she just trying to make sure that the procrastinating artist makes her press deadline?
High Art is a terrific film about ambition in the arts. It is also a harrowing film about heroin addiction, second perhaps only to Trainspotting in its realism and intensity. Ally Sheedy sheds the bubbly cuteness that made her famous in the Brat Pack movies of the 1980s; at times she looks almost cadaverous and every bit the heroin user. She delivers a fascinating portrait of an artist. Tired of the bullshit that accompanies fame, she explains that "it seemed kinda punk at the time," when she left New York and stopped showing her work. It's clear she wants it back but Greta is a problem and a major distraction. How can you concentrate on your art, and who cares about the looming deadline, when you girlfriend is overdosing on junk?
Patricia Clarkson functions almost as if she were a character in a Fassbinder film and her performance as Greta induces chills. She is so burned out that she sleepwalks through life, falling asleep in restaurants and even during sex. It's creepy, and almost scary, how she always shifts the blame for everything to her younger partner. A narcissist of the first order, she insists that she was the one who made all the sacrifices by giving up her life in Berlin to be with Lucy. She's a great comatose villainess who also manages to inspire pity. "Greta, Fassbinder's dead," Lucy finally says when she's reached her limit. "You didn't have a career after that."
There is much to admire in this film and its plot works on many different levels. The growing sexual tension between the ladies is in the forefront but a good deal of drama is also generated when it begins to look like Lucy is blowing off the magazine. Syd is still being treated with condescension by her editors and her job is on the line if Lucy fails to deliver. Some of the scenes at the magazine are quite funny, especially the ones where Harry pretends that he knows exactly who Lucy is when, in reality, he has never heard of her. At times it almost seems as cut-throat as Wall Street when Dominique reminds Lucy about how another famous photographer was supposed to get the cover. Lucy gossips with Syd, in private, about how the annoying Dominique was once the receptionist at Interview.
The inevitable seduction is superbly realized and doesn't follow any standard Hollywood "meet-cute" scenarios. Yes there is eye contact and subtle flirting, but their first kiss is interrupted by their stoner friend, Arnie (Bill Sage), barging in to announce that Greta has OD'ed in the bathroom. When they go off on a road trip to take pictures, Syd (who had snorted her first line of heroin back at the apartment the night they kissed) says she doesn't want to get high this weekend. Lucy agrees as Syd explains, "I just don't want to be with you like that right now." Syd is confused, and needs a clear head. In one of the most exqusite love scenes with a nervous first-timer ever filmed, Lucy is a confident, and older, teacher who asks "You okay?" and "You sure?" Syd says she doesn't really know what she's doing and Lucy says, "You're doing fine." Both the tenderness and the awkwardness is beautifully conveyed. Much of this is captured in one long, expertly acted and sensual camera shot with music that doesn't scream to be noticed. Afterwards, Lucy begins to snap pictures of her new lover.

I've left much for viewers to discover on their own and this is a thematically rich film that deepens on repeated visits. The cast is outstanding and the script hits all the right notes. The ending is a downer but High Art remains a well crafted film by a first time director at the top of her game. High Art is not a preachy film, nor does director Cholodenko condemn the denizens of the cinematic landscape she paints for the audience. A tale of innocence lost, Syd will pay a high price for her ambition. None of it is deserved, but all of it is sadly inevitable. A walk on the wild side, tragically, often comes with severe consequences.


Lisa Cholodenko also directed an episode of:
The L Word

Patricia Clarkson also appears in
The Dying Gaul

Bill Sage also appears in:
Mysterious Skin
The New Twenty