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  High Art A picture would last longer
Year: 1998
Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Stars: Ally Sheedy, Radha Mitchell, Patricia Clarkson, Gabriel Mann, Charis Michelson, David Thornton, Anh Duong, Helen Mendes, Bill Sage, Tammy Grimes, Cindra Feuer, Anthony Ruivivar, Elaine Tse, Rudolf Martin, Laura Ekstrand
Genre: DramaBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: Syd (Radha Mitchell), struggling assistant editor of a trendy New York arts magazine, is drawn to investigate her neighbours upstairs when water keeps dripping from her apartment ceiling. She discovers photographer Lucy Berliner (Ally Sheedy) and her German girlfriend Greta (Patricia Clarkson) who live a drug-fuelled lifestyle amidst their coterie of decadent friends, having shunned the art scene. Syd persuades Lucy to launch a “comeback” with a photo-spread for her magazine and gradually begins a passionate affair that alienates Greta and her own, martini-swilling boyfriend James (Gabriel Mann). But this new romance cannot assuage Lucy’s growing problems with Greta and the pressures from compromising her art, and she enters a downward spiral.

Back during the more conservative 1950s, movies commonly lambasted the art world as shallow and exploitative, and would often have their characters find salvation in love, friends, family and middle-class values. Fast-forward to the grunge rock Nineties and High Art takes it as given that the art scene is a cesspool of parasites - e.g. Syd’s ridiculously venal and opportunistic editor. Love, in the form of two heroin-addled lesbians, is just another layer to this claustrophobic existence from which the only escape lies at the end of a needle. It is a bleak, despairing assessment, yet often moving in its portrayal of flawed, frustrated characters searching in vain for that life-giving breath of fresh air.

The film marked a minor comeback for former Brat Pack actress Ally Sheedy, whose intense performance garnered a number of indie accolades. Certainly those more familiar with junk like The Breakfast Club (1985) or Short Circuit (1986), will be startled by her haggard and hollow-eyed turn here, but this is really a three-hander and her co-stars deserve equal praise. Patricia Clarkson is unforgettable as Greta, a smack-addled harpy and former actress forever name-dropping Rainer Werner Fassbinder as a reminder of past glories. Radha Mitchell - a few years before her flirtation with mainstream stardom in Pitch Black (2000) and Melinda and Melinda (2004) - excels as Syd, alluring yet enigmatic. We’re never certain whether Syd is just an art leech latched onto Lucy, or genuinely falling in love and frightened by the strength of her feelings. Or perhaps a little of both.

With sex scenes that reveal more about characters’ need for emotional intimacy rather than titillate, writer-director Lisa Cholodenko delivers a sense that Lucy sees in Syd, a vitality and spark missing from her “glamorous” life with the increasingly unstable, disaffected Greta. Cholodenko offers a non-judgmental view drug consumption, but doesn’t glamorise it either. Her movie proceeds leisurely as if filtered through a solipsistic, drug-fuelled haze, while even the non-drug using characters come across as introverted and apathetic. Yet the tone is one of gentle sadness rather than hand-wringing horror, reminding us these are loving human beings. Great soundtrack by Shudder To Think, especially the haunting closer: “She Might Be Waking Up.”

Reviewer: Andrew Pragasam


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