Lisa Cholodenko's beautifully acted debut film, High Art, features the surprising re-emergence of Ally Sheedy, whose raw, heartbreaking performance is complemented by an equally affecting turn from Australian Radha Mitchell (Love and Other Catastrophes). Mitchell plays Syd, an ambitious 24-year-old assistant editor at Frame, a highbrow photography magazine (akin to Aperture). Syd's treated as a glorified gofer by Frame's snooty senior brass, but her fortunes change suddenly when one night she notices a leak in her bathroom ceiling, goes upstairs to investigate, and meets Lucy Berliner (Sheedy), a critically acclaimed photographer who began a self-imposed career hiatus ten years earlier-she 'stopped showing up' for both work and life. Lucy shares her disordered, photo-strewn apartment with her lover Greta (Patricia Clarkson), a former Fassbinder actress, who's so constantly doped up on heroin she's barely able to keep her eyes open. Ditto for the rest of Lucy's hanger-on friends, who perpetually lounge and do drugs at her place (which production designer Bernhard Blythe contrasts markedly with the tastefully spartan 20-something pad Syd occupies with her clean-cut boyfriend). In classic New York fashion, these upstairs/downstairs neighbors inhabit radically different worlds but develop a bond which culminates in a passionate affair. Syd convinces Lucy to come out of retirement and do a cover and photo spread for Frame, a coup which promises to jump-start her editorial career. What she doesn't foresee is her personal and professional life colliding, as Lucy practices the kind of realist photographic art that makes her friends and lovers her subjects. (Larry Clark and Nan Goldin are among Cholodenko's reference points.) Long before Syd realizes it, we can see where Lucy's next body of work will come from.
Cholodenko studied film at Columbia, and her script, which won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award at Sundance, is peppered with references familiar to any graduate student in the humanities-Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, etc. When Syd observes that Lucy's work has a 'subverted realism,' the artist responds by saying, 'I haven't been deconstructed in a long time.' Such dialogue will likely make non-academic types wince, but Cholodenko is not out to merely show how well-read she is. What's provocative about High Art is Syd's troubling motivations. At the same time she attempts to revitalize Lucy's career (and her spirit), Syd's advancing her own interests; she's co-opted Lucy to facilitate her journey of self-exploration. Syd's sexual attraction for Lucy is equally complex, as it's hard to discern if the artist really fulfills a physical or emotional need for Syd that her boyfriend doesn't, or if she simply is infatuated with the myth of the 'artist.' Syd and Lucy's physical relationship reaches a climax in a touching, superbly realized scene in which the younger woman admits to her experienced partner, 'I don't really know what I'm doing.' Sex and drugs uneasily co-exist throughout the film-Greta is always too high to have sex with Lucy, and their mutual dependence on heroin is almost too painful to watch, particularly during a scene late in the film when Lucy, attempting to get clean, falls off the wagon. The artist's hetero male friend Arnie (Bill Sage) is a would-be lothario whose heroin habit doesn't allow him to raise himself off the couch to flirt. And the only time we see Syd and her boyfriend try to have sex is after she does drugs with Lucy's crowd for the first time. Not surprisingly, her desire turns to sickness.
As good as Mitchell and Sheedy are, High Art's wild card performance comes from Patricia Clarkson. With her thick German accent, and disaffected, heavy-lidded manner, she steals every scene she's in. Despite seeming completely out of it, she quickly writes off Syd as a 'sycophant,' 'bootlicker,' and 'parasite,' harsh judgments that seem uncomfortably true as the film moves along. Some comic relief is provided by Tammy Grimes as Lucy's protective Jewish mother, who can't believe that her daughter likes girls, and refuses to call Greta anything but 'the German.' David Thornton, who's something of a Jeff Goldblum type, is perfectly cast as Syd's self-absorbed, credit-hogging boss from hell. Equally good is Anh Duong as his Euro Princess sidekick, whom Lucy deridingly remembers as the former receptionist at Interview magazine. And Shudder to Think's languid, atmospheric tunes punctuate the film's druggy mood. High Art will surely be embraced by the lesbian community (producer Dolly Hall's credits include The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love and All Over Me), but this affecting film is one of the year's more intriguing art-house entries, and doesn't deserve to be simply relegated to a niche audience.