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High Art

movie reviewmovie review out of 4 Movie Review: High Art

Starring: Ally Sheedy, Radha Mitchell
Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Rated: R
RunTime: 102 Minutes
Release Date: June 1998
Genres: Drama, Gay/Lesbian, Romance

*Also starring: Patricia Clarkson, Tammy Grimes, William Sage, David Thornton

Review by Mark OHara
No Rating Supplied

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 lives.

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

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