Whatever we get ourselves into, we have to pay for. This theme seems to
echo in the our heads at the end of Lisa Cholodenko's "High Art."
Syd, the central character, played by Radha Mitchell, is an assistant
editor at 'Frame' magazine, an important publication in the world of
photography. One problem she's experiencing is that, despite her recent
promotion, she's still treated like an errand-running editorial
assistant by her boss Harry (David Thornton). Syd's other problem is
that her life with boyfriend James (Gabriel Mann), has come to a
standstill of boredom. James seems like he's more interested in the
attractiveness of a blue shirt than in saying anything exciting or witty
to Syd. Not that she tries hard, either.
What opens Syd's eyes to alternatives is a visit to the apartment above
her, ostensibly to inquire about a plumbing problem. As she lies on the
floor of the stranger's bathroom, we see the neighbor - Lucy Berliner,
played by Ally Sheedy - glance at Syd's exposed side, a hint of
attraction in her eyes. It so happens that Lucy is a once-celebrated
photographer who still practices her art privately; portraits of her
friends, many caught in erotic candids, hang around the apartment and
around Syd's memory. Returning to Lucy's digs, Syd meets Lucy's
drug-addled friends, herself does a line of heroine, and becomes part of
Lucy's inner circle. As she returns downstairs to James, Syd is unable
to complete the hot session of sex she had awakened him for. This marks
the beginning of Syd's ventures outside the routines formed the last few
years, and the end of any positive involvement with her boyfriend.
The bulk of the plot concerns the developing romance between Syd and
Lucy. It is marked by solid acting by both actresses, and the portrayal
of serious emotions with no easy escapes or solutions, a plotting
strategy for which Lisa Cholodenko, as writer and director, is to be
admired. Indeed, the story travels beyond realism into the edges of
naturalism, as we see the seamy world that makes up a large part of
Lucy's history - a world with which Syd will slowly become conversant.
Cholodenko depicts the world as a place of utter nonchalance, where
drugs of whatever form are shared between friends, where sex is casual
and commitments uncertain. As one of Syd's few male friends, Arnie
(Bill Sage) is almost a comic example of an accommodating burn-out.
As Lucy's lover Greta, a German actress who is obviously too strung out
to act, Patricia Clarkson makes her character disturbingly real.
Imagine Greta Garbo's voice spoken even more slowly and lethargically -
we know this character's soul has begun already to leave her body, and
we realize with dread that misery loves all the company it can get.
Greta calls Syd a "teenager," even though Syd saves her life by
administering CPR after Greta overdoses. Perhaps verisimilitude would
have been satisfied had Greta screamed and thrown objects (a camera,
maybe?) at Syd, but then again Greta's influence still manages to ruin
any promise of happiness between Lucy and Syd.
It's good to watch Ally Sheedy in a vehicle so much the opposite of
"Maid to Order." In her mid-thirties, Sheedy is striking as ever, if
fashionably underweight. Her stringy muscles and tendons only help her
sketching of the starving soul of Lucy. We care most about her when she
reveals her drug problem to her wealthy mother (Tammy Grimes), and
especially when she complies with Syd's request to swear off the white
powder for their weekend together. Their professional lives
intertwining with their personal ones, Lucy and Syd collaborate on a
shoot for the cover of 'Frame.' It's a touchy situation, and brings up
nuances that can be applied to the mixing of anyone's job and home
I suspect personal tastes will be much involved in any viewer's
reception of "High Art." I found the love scenes between Lucy and her
lovers to be realistic without being too graphic. There is no nudity
below the waist. The scenes portraying recreational drug-taking,
though, were too frequent and frankly revolting. Cholodenko is building
a sordid atmosphere that could engender what happens at the end, I
suppose. But the communal amorality of her characters certainly does
not lessen our distance toward them. We could care more about what
happens to Syd and Lucy. But we don't give a hang about Arnie, for
example, when he's sitting in Lucy's age-worn Mercedes at the far end of
the story, staring ahead in terror at what's facing him.
Copyright © 1998 Mark OHara