Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / It�s a rare movie that finds the sweet spot between storyline cohesiveness and minimal exposition as well as great tone. Lisa Cholodenko�s plangent late-nineties gem High Art � her feature debut, now available on Criterion � is one such movie. To say it is about the allure of the louche in the New York art world is accurate but incomplete. More deeply, it concerns people who are serious about art, compelled to belong, to make a mark, and to push the psychological envelope all at once. So, while artists’ lives have changed since 1998 � the down-and-out is no longer so casually courted � the narrative wears well, capturing a timeless syndrome.
Syd (a deft Radha Mitchell), in her mid-twenties, is looking to advance from minion to player at a chic photography magazine. She is hampered by the glib condescension of her whitebread boyfriend James as well as her haughtily knowing bosses. Owing to a leak in the ceiling of the loft she shares with James, Syd fatefully raps on the door of the occupant one floor up: Lucy Berliner (Ally Sheedy, never better), apparently based on photographer Nan Goldin. Lucy is an erstwhile art star who shot the downtown club scene before mysteriously exiting it a decade earlier. Her crib serves as a flophouse for the distressed but elegant. The saddest and most bewitching is Greta, a has-been German actress and Lucy�s girlfriend. Patricia Clarkson drives Greta’s heroin-addled despair home like a velvet stake. Lucy and Syd dig each other. Both mine what is genuine attraction. All are meaningfully hurt.
Acutely observed truths seamlessly gird this unusually fluent film. Without precious framing, Lucy�s apartment reflects the art world itself. However depraved it may get, it�s part of the cultural architecture. Having long predated Syd�s brittle little household below, that world will also outlast it, and, like the mesmerizing low spark of high heels in the Traffic tune, is now poised to unsettle it. The foundation thus laid is authoritatively real, the connections forged among characters aptly coaxed, the dialogue and performances invariably naturalistic. Lucy�s spartan affect makes it clear that, though scarred and troubled, she�s earned the power she wields over Syd, who, if she wants some for herself, is compelled to take it. Over time, who is seducing whom becomes murkier. But it is secondary in the immersive quest Cholodenko is examining. Survival with the benefits of wisdom and kindness is a fair result, and even that can be tragically elusive.
High Art, written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko. Distributed by October Films, 1998.
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