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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 Harvey Karten
No Rating Supplied

A major creator of designer clothes recently agreed under pressure to stop displaying photos of heroin chic. These ads exhibited young people dressed in whatever hideous and impractical threads were au courant, looking like zombies in their trendy raiment. Civic groups presumably feared that young and impressionable consumers would follow the examples of their icons and shoot up or snort--just to be "in." In yet another recent case (the same designer?) an advertiser was warned about using models who seemed every bit as ancient as thirteen years of age. The fashion industry is, like many others including Hollywood, one based on hype and image, but perhaps the enterprise that pushes spin to the limit. The highly textured and beautifully photographed and nuanced film "High Art" examines the lives of those who create the glossies. Are they jaded commercial artists who are straight as an arrow and who cynically ply their trade for profits, are do they come from more bohemian ranks, selling out perhaps to raise money to buy more drugs? The prototypes in writer-director Lisa Cholodenko's engrossing work may not be representative, but they certainly make for more interesting viewing than would a bunch of square professionals.

Providing her audience with insight into the world of slick fashion magazines, Cholodenko has thrown together a group of three-dimensional characters who are studies in contrast. Syd (Radha Mitchell), a lovely, young, naive, straight, and ambitious assistant editor for the fictitious "Frame" magazine, is contrasted with Lucy Berliner (Ally Sheedy), a been-there- done-that top photographer who burned out ten years ago, presumably disgusted with the demands put upon her by the industry. Lucy's lesbian girlfriend, Greta (Patricia Clarkson), an ethnically German woman who has moved to New York so that Lucy can pursue her craft there, is differentiated from Lucy's rich mom Vera (Tammy Grimes), a Holocaust survivor who has no use for Germans. Syd's boyfriend James (Gabriel Mann), a bore who criticizes Lucy for not getting a position of real influence with her magazine, is world's away from Arnie (Bill Sage), a heroin-addicted guy who hangs out with lesbians.

When Syd goes upstairs to find out whether her neighbor's bathtub is leaking water, she meet the coterie of strung-out somnambulists but is intrigued to discover that the woman who lives upstairs, Lucy, was once a noted, published photographer. Ambitious to gain recognition from the editor of "Frame" magazine, Dominique (Anh Duong), she persuades Lucy to have lunch with Dominique and her own boss, Harry (David Thornton), and is flattered, even ecstatic, when Lucy insists on having Syd as her editor. The relationship between Lucy and Syd flourishes and, as they engage in some frank, though unconsummated, sexual activity, each is concerned about the loss of her long-term partner.

Cholodenko has done quite a job tackling some major themes, including the struggle between the demands and deadlines of commerce vs. the free-spirited life of the artist; the attachment of people to their constant sexual partners vs. the appeal of fresh ties; the impact that a chance meeting with strangers can have on a person's routines; and the very nature of a person's sexual identity: is it fixed or fluid? Cholodenko deliberately keeps us guessing about the true temper of Syd's feelings for Lucy, prompting us at one moment to believe that Syd has changed her sexual orientation while at another she has us convinced that Syd's feeling is merely one of infatuation for a person she holds in great esteem.

Ally Sheedy and Radha Mitchell give vibrant performances as two women who investigate and explore their feelings for one another, Ms. Sheedy breaking loose of her 1980s ingenue specimen, Ms. Mitchell exposing every nuance of a young woman at a turning point in her career and love life. One particular sexual scene has already become the talk of the sophisticated film community: Sheedy and Mitchell do not shed their clothes but engage in a tantalizing scouting of sensation and sensitivity. With Patricia Clarkson squaring off the triangle as a dazed heroin addict--a former Fassbinder actress hanging on desperately to a straying woman--"High Art" will attract a substantial following in the lesbian community and should cross over well to a sophisticated general audience of film buffs.

Copyright 1998 Harvey Karten

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