High Art is a low-budget, American independent movie about junkie, lesbian photographer Lucy Berliner (Ally Sheedy), who spends most of her time looking romantically mournful. She's famished and abrasive and oh-so-world-weary. When she smokes cigarettes, she exhales in a way that can best be described as existential; the smoke curls out in a hazy daze. Lucy's live-in lover Greta (Patricia Clarkson) is a German actress who once worked for filmmaker Rainer Werner Fassbinder. She spends most of her time stoned and sounds like a drag-queen Marlene Dietrich impersonator -- which, come to think of it, is how Dietrich herself often sounded.
With more angst than you can shake a stick at, High Art sets a new course for the American indie film. Instead of the usual Scorsese-esque buddy confab, we have something closer to the funky Fassbinder world of marginalized, pansexual depressives. First-time feature director Lisa Cholodenko, who also scripted, is enamored with the slow rot of blasted lives. She films long, languorous takes in a verite style that recalls not only Fassbinder but also Andy Warhol and John Cassavetes. It's all so glamorously unglamorous.
But this arty dirge has a conventional beat. High Art is all about the wages of sin, and in Cholodenko's world, selling out is the highest vice. Selling out is what Lucy refused to do ten years ago when she dropped out of photography because she couldn't tolerate the commercialism of the slick magazine scene. Syd (Radha Mitchell), a glorified intern trying to make a name for herself at the posh photo mag Frame, coaxes her into delivering up a spread of "personal" photos. But what price glory? As Lucy's deadline approaches, she starts reverting to her old belligerent ways. She also begins a tryst with Syd, who is so gaga about Lucy that Syd's boyfriend (Gabriel Mann) understandably has a snit.
Cholodenko wants to be new wave, but her attitudes are old style: She makes it easy to condemn the high-powered New York City photography scene by making everybody in it a rank opportunist. The magazine's top editors, played by David Thornton and Anh Duong, are unfeeling; they're nonartists who covet the souls of the artists they control. (We don't even see them do drugs -- that's how unfeeling they are.) Even Syd, who seems to be dreamwalking through her career machinations, is rapped by Cholodenko for "exploiting" Lucy.
Despite the film's intentions, it's difficult to dismiss the notion that the magazine editors are right: Lucy is a big pain in the butt, and it would probably do her a world of good to get back on track with something halfway "commercial." Lucy's assignment for Frame, which she accepts mostly to placate Syd, is supposed to be an examination of her own life. Not an easy task, especially when the life you've been living is stuporous. But the job has the potential to revitalize Lucy's career. Cholodenko sets her up as a renegade artist with a startling vision, but we have to take that vision on faith, because her photos -- mostly blurry, arty shots of her lovers and friends -- don't inspire in us the requisite awe. (They're actually taken by JoJo Whilden, a long-time friend and collaborator of Cholodenko.) Later, when Lucy takes pictures of Syd in various states of undress, we're supposed to see them as a revelation -- the baring of Lucy's soul.
But, again, what we see isn't so much high art as ad art. That pouty, spiritual look was long ago co-opted by Calvin Klein and everybody else. It's the soulfulness of soullessness, and it sells everything from perfume to underwear to, well, movies such as High Art.
As if Lucy weren't weighted down with enough woefulness, she's also given a German mother (Tammy Grimes) who survived the Holocaust. We keep expecting Cholodenko to do something with this tidbit, but it's just in the movie to resonate the rue. Lucy's mother is German. Lucy's girlfriend is German. There's a metaphor there somewhere. Mom also provides the dough to subsidize her daughter's wayfaring. Being romantically mournful doesn't come cheap.
Cholodenko may want to condemn her druggies and wastrels for ruining their lives, but clearly she's also enamored with them. There's something a little queasy about the way we too are meant to be smitten. Her approach is reminiscent of Larry Clark's Kids (1995), which also aestheticized messed-up lives while pretending to be brutally honest about them. Cholodenko has a graceful, free-floating style, but it's deceptive: We may think we're getting a laid-back, nonjudgmental overview, but in fact we're being handed a bill of goods.
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What cuts through the bull are a few of the performances. Mitchell has a plaintive quality that makes you care about Syd's dreamwalk. We can see how she might slip unawares into the lush ruins of Lucy's world. Clarkson may be playing a camp vamp, but she understands how Greta dramatizes her own destruction; the play-acting has taken over the actress.
Ally Sheedy, who hasn't appeared in anything of note in years, comes back with the best performance of her career. She's been saddled with the reputation of a superannuated brat-packer, but even in her Breakfast Club (1985) days she seemed sharper and edgier than her roles required. She was an actress waiting to happen.
In High Art she isn't doing one of those career-changing star turns that's supposed to show off how versatile she is. (Remember Sylvester Stallone in Copland?) Her immersion in the character is so total that we never think of her as showing off. Cholodenko's conception is romanticized and inauthentic, but Sheedy pulls something true out of it. Lucy has lived a life, and from the evidence on screen, so has Sheedy. She makes direct, startling contact with the audience. Bring on the great roles.
Directed and written by Lisa Cholodenko. Starring Ally Sheedy, Radha Mitchell, Patricia Clarkson, and Gabriel Mann.