Cliches Devalue Well-Acted ‘High Art’


I don’t know about art, but people are definitely high in Lisa Cholodenko’s arrestingly ambitious “High Art,” a movie populated by characters who keep themselves so stoned on heroin they seem to be in a perpetual state of slow-motion.

It’s a world, as the heroine Syd (Radha Mitchell) will learn, that you enter at your own risk. One line sucked into the nasal passage can turn your brain into drying cement. It’s like being in one of those dreams where you try to run but your legs won’t move. Only, these people aren’t trying to move. They’ve stopped the world and gotten off, they’ve chosen stupor over struggle, to be loaded and disconnected.

That’s the scene discovered by Syd, a fledgling New York photo magazine editor, when she knocks on the door of her upstairs neighbor, hoping to find the source of water leaking through her and her boyfriend’s bathroom ceiling. About the only coherent person in the room is Lucy (Ally Sheedy), a former rich girl and prodigy in New York’s photo-art world, who had gone off to Europe in a fit of material rejection and returned with Greta (Patricia Clarkson), a strung-out German actress, as her dependent lover.


Syd doesn’t recognize Lucy, but she knows good photography when she sees it, and the walls of this drug den are covered in brilliantly intimate candid photos. Or so Syd--and later, her editors--say. They look like doable snapshots to me.

In any event, Syd returns, to snort some dope herself and laze around on Lucy’s bed, drunkenly considering the unfamiliar pangs of passion she’s feeling for another woman.

Syd’s emotions become a tangle of envy, admiration, infatuation and ambition. She wants to score with her bosses by bringing Lucy to the magazine, and Lucy wants to score with her by cooperating. The magazine’s deadline for Lucy’s assignment becomes the catalyst that will alter several people’s lives.

The fact that “High Art,” which earned Cholodenko the screenwriting award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, is the third lesbian-themed film from producer Dolly Hall (the others were “The Incredible True Adventures of Two Girls in Love” and “All Over Me”) has already pigeonholed “High Art” for a niche art-house crowd.

But the genders of the lovers are almost incidental to the true beat of this story. It’s not about an experienced lesbian recruiting a straight; if anything, Syd is the aggressor. And nothing is made of it, even by Syd’s angry boyfriend, who looks on Lucy as he would any rival.

Cholodenko’s main interest is the self-destructiveness of Lucy, a heroin addict trapped in a cycle of doom, and the impact that the secure and relatively square Syd has on her. The key moment of truth in the film comes when Syd announces to Lucy, as they head upstate for a weekend tryst--their first--that drugs can’t be a part of that experience.


“High Art” is, unfortunately, full of itself and its artistic pretensions. The dialogue and personalities of the magazine editors, though intended as humorously hip, will produce more sounds of gagging than laughter. And the hazy drug scenes, especially those with Greta, whom Clarkson portrays as a zonked-out Marlene Dietrich, have the stale odor of cliche.

But there’s nothing wrong with the lead performances. Sheedy plays Lucy with a strength that gradually falls away as a facade over her vulnerability, and Mitchell (“Love and Other Catastrophes”) is a revelation as the innocently ambitious Syd. Together they provide some of the most honest and hotly passionate romance you’ll find in theaters this year.

* MPAA rating: R for for strong sexuality, pervasive drug use and language. Times guidelines: frank discussions of sexuality and lesbian lovemaking, along with continual use of heroin.

‘High Art’

Ally Sheedy: Lucy Berliner

Radha Mitchell: Syd

Patricia Clarkson: Greta

Gabriel Mann-James: Syd’s boyfriend

Bill Sage: Arnie

Anh Duong: Dominique

Tammy Grimes: Vera

An October Films production. Written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko. Producers Dolly Hall, Jeff Levy-Hinte and Susan A. Stover. Associate producer Lori E. Seid. Director of photography Tami Reiker. Editor Amy E. Duddleston. Production designer Bernhard Blythe. Original music Shudder to Think. Costume designer Victoria Farrell. Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.

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