High Art (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

I suppose High Art is as good a name as any for this pretentious melodrama, an often-diverting but ultimately pointless attempt to wed intellectual twaddle with a soap-opera-ish lesbian romance. Lisa Cholodenko's film, which had its world premiere in competition at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, received a decidedly mixed reception there, but was widely praised by feminists more because of its theme of female empowerment than because of a particularly original or engaging script.

High Art introduces us to Syd (Radha Mitchell), a hard-working twenty-something woman who has a menial position at a high-end photography magazine and whose home life includes a lifeless, routine relationship with an unsupportive cad named James. One day, a leak in the ceiling of Syd's apartment opens a whole new world to her. When she goes upstairs to inquire about the problem, she stumbles into the bohemian world of Lucy Berliner (Ally Sheedy), a once-famous fashion photographer who vanished from the public eye a decade ago. Lucy's apartment is awash in sex, drugs, and banal, intellectual chatter. She lives with her heroin-addicted lover, a German ex-actress named Greta (Patricia Clarkson), and a bunch of friends who drift in and out as they please. Syd is so intrigued by Lucy's lifestyle that she worms her way into the older woman's inner circle, then uses the opportunity to press Lucy into doing a photo spread for her magazine. Soon, however, the pair's working relationship turns sexual, and neither is sure where they should go from there.

The most honest (although not the most unique) aspect of High Art is the relationship between Syd and Lucy. These are both real characters beset by believable angst. The attraction is palpable and both actresses give capable performances. Radha Mitchell (Pitch Black) lights up the screen with an unforced combination of innocence and seemingly-unintentional sensuality. Ally Sheedy, who is best known for undemanding roles (such as in The Breakfast Club and Only the Lonely), is surprisingly effective cast against type (although I think some of the praise heaped upon her for this role has been overstated - she's good, but not excellent). Frankly, though, I wish the movie had spent a little more time concentrating on Syd alone and less on her sexual liaison with Lucy. Although better developed than most motion picture lesbian affairs, it's fundamentally not all that compelling.

Unfortunately, the romance between Syd and Lucy is just one of a number of things on Cholodenko's agenda. Her script delves into themes of female empowerment, the war between ambition and affection, the effects of star power, and the balance between art and commercialism. None of these ideas (many of which are glossed over) are effectively presented. They are either woven into the plot in an obvious, chunky fashion (all that's missing is a neon sign saying "Look! Important issue ahead!") or introduced through the pretentious drivel that the characters spout at one another.

Aside from Syd and Lucy, the characters are either irritating or complete non-entities. All men fall into the latter category. The only male with any significant screen time, a slacker played by actor Bill Sage (who has appeared in a number of Hal Hartley films), spends most of his time sitting around in Lucy's apartment, engaging in pointless conversation and getting stoned. Syd's partner, James, is a one-dimensional, egocentric jerk. On the female side, the most prominent supporting character is Lucy's irritating, self-absorbed lover, who is played with over-the-top relish by Patricia Clarkson.

Visually, High Art is impressive. The film's appearance is, as the title implies, artistic, and Cholodenko's presentation of the female/female sex scene is lush and sensual. The director also displays an aptitude for developing atmosphere (consider, for example, the exotic setting of Lucy's apartment). However, while such a sumptuous style makes it more enjoyable to look at the picture, it's far from everything needed for a successful endeavor. Despite solid performances in the two major roles, High Art's script is too talky and uneven to make this really worthwhile, unless, of course, you're a fan of arty soap operas.

High Art (United States, 1998)

Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Cast: Radha Mitchell, Ally Sheedy, Patricia Clarkson, Bill Sage, Tammy Grimes, Gabriel Mann
Screenplay: Lisa Cholodenko
Cinematography: Tami Reiker
Music: Shudder to Think
U.S. Distributor: October Films
Run Time: 1:41
U.S. Release Date: -
MPAA Rating: "R" (Sexual Content, Nudity, Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1