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Not your mother's lesbian coming-out film

By Ray Pride

JULY 6, 1998: 

The narcotic pull of "High Art"

There are no casual looks. Indifferent ones, yes, glances at parts of the world we have learned through experience to ignore, through indifference, weariness.

This is also the perplex of contemporary photography. The dull, distant debate over photography's virtues as art have been supplanted by contemporary voices like Nan Goldin's, which depict a circle of friends, captured on film but also captured in the throes of personal upheavals. Despair becomes iconic, romanticized. It's the urge that led to the popularly maligned "heroin chic" genre of fashion photographs.

Writer-director Lisa Cholodenko's rich, laconic debut feature, "High Art," does something more complex and thrilling, turning the glassy surfaces of its story, its charactersĞand the work they doĞinto something transparent, then tragic, and then, in a final flurry of calculated ambiguity, into something wonderfully mysterious. While capturing her story in a visual style that mimics and comments on a generation of gallery walls and fashion tearsheets, her Sundance screenwriting-prize-winning script is memorably astringent and ultimately unsentimental about the lives onscreen.

Syd is one among thousands of young women of Manhattan's art-fodder, smart and beautiful and inexperienced and ready to indenture themselves to an ideal, which inevitably profits some publisher or magazine or arts group until they learn enough to move on to a more profitable job or to another, more forgiving city. As played by Radha Mitchell (photo), she is both impenetrably cool yet conspicuously shy. She's in a long-term relationship with her boyfriend, James (Gabriel Mann), and seems preoccupied with her work as an assistant editor at a photography magazine. One day, water starts to pour into their apartment and Syd rushes upstairs, where she meets Lucy, a famous photographer whose crabbed life and bruised images seem cribbed from Nan Goldin's life and work. Lucy's apartment is another world, a trust-funded circle of friends taking heroin and talking about cafes instead of culture. Time stands still in that apartment, then slows down. Mitchell is a strong, reactive performer, but the best performance in "High Art" comes from Ally Sheedy, drawn and compelling as Lucy. In John Hughes' movies, she was cute, pert. In her thirties, she has grown into a harsh, focused beauty and her Lucy has gone from hurt to art to resignation in only a few short years. She gave up her work for the downtown glamour of this inertia, her co-dependent friends, her comic mock-Dietrich lesbian lover (Patricia Clarkson).

The women are all too alike. They are both accustomed to looking, not seeing. Their chance meeting leads them to jostle, nudge each other out of their holes and into a world neither could predict. Lucy provokes Syd's cold-eyed covetousness of the outlaw allure Lucy has accrued and nurtured. Syd wants Lucy's cachet; Lucy wants Syd. Their seduction is transacted on every level, even, finally, on the level of true feeling. The fire of professional fervor faces the trickle of sexual desire, with combustible results.

Something clicks in Syd: she pulls out of her shell, realizes that she could vastly improve her own sphere of career choices if she could convince the reclusive Lucy to work again. But a curve-ball is coming. Cholodenko's puns are thematic, working variations on the title's implications, revealing all the implications of "using" in the relationship that grows between the pair. Lucy finds Syd both charming and amusing: "I haven't been deconstructed in a long time," is her wry rejoinder to the idea of Syd's career retrospective fleshed out with new material.

Art as commodity, standards, scruples: dry material that Cholodenko makes tingle with immediacy and a strange, unsettling fever. When Lucy and Syd's lives begin to mingle, Syd finds herself involved sexually with Lucy. Does this make "High Art" a lesbian coming-out romance? No. It's a story about professional and personal boundaries and how they inevitably merge if you can only keep your eyes on the horizon. Everyone in the film has motives; no one has excuses. There are no real victims or villains. These are adults playing very adult games with the highest of stakes. "High Art" is a small, smart movie with its own uncompromising voice: Sheedy's astonishing performance only ices the cake.

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