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Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Review: High Art (1998)

* * * 1/2

Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Starring: Ally Sheedy, Radha Mitchell, Patricia Clarkson

“I have a love issue and a drug problem. Or maybe I have a love problem and a drug issue. I don’t know.” This line, said by Lucy (Ally Sheedy), the tragic artist, is pretty much the gist of High Art. If Lucy were able to recognize that both are the problem and that they’re so intricately linked, she might be able to save herself. But of course, it's not that kind of movie. This is a study of descent, not salvation, and out of it comes a performance of absolute perfection courtesy of the former Brat Packer.

We meet Lucy through Syd (Radha Mitchell), her downstairs neighbour. Syd ventures upstairs to find the source of a leak and stays after becoming intrigued by the photographs in Lucy’s apartment, which she learns were taken by Lucy. Syd is an assistant editor at a photography magazine called Frame, though she’s treated more like an assistant, and she sees in Lucy’s work an opportunity to be taken more seriously herself. She borrows a book of Lucy’s photos and takes it to work, where her boss is shocked to learn that she knows the Lucy Berliner. Lucy doesn’t show her work anymore and she isn’t interested in accepting an assignment, but allows Syd to talk her into taking a meeting with the Frame editors. She agrees to do a project for them but only on the condition that Syd be her editor.

The attraction between Lucy and Syd is evident in their first scene and becomes physical once they start working together. Indeed, working together seems to be an excuse for taking the opportunity to sleep together. Their relationship is complicated by Lucy’s heroin addiction as well as her relationship with Greta (Patricia Clarkson, fabulous as always), a German actress who shares her addiction and her home. Lucy and Greta’s relationship is defined by a deep co-dependence that is ultimately impossible for Syd to break because although Greta is a mess who exists in a permanent drug haze, it’s Lucy who really needs her. Greta asks for and expects nothing but drugs, which in effect gives Lucy an excuse not to try and not to risk failure again. Syd, on the other hand, has expectations of Lucy which would require her to break her addiction and realize the potential that she showed before she abandoned her career. Her relationship with Greta, and all that that entails, is like a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Though Lucy’s relationship with Syd is the film’s primary focus, it is Lucy’s relationships with Greta and with her mother (Tammy Grimes) that tells us the most about her as a character. Her mother is a European immigrant (her accent sounds German to me but her origins aren’t specifically stated), a Jew who fled after the Nazis came to power but before they started rounding people up. She has seemingly little issue with Lucy’s sexuality, but the fact that Lucy is with Greta – who her mother refers to disparagingly as “the German” – is a major issue. The relationship between Lucy and her mother is fascinating, as is Lucy’s relationship with Greta, which kind of makes it a shame that Lucy spends so much time with Syd. I don’t know whether it’s Mitchell’s performance or simply the way the character has been conceived by director Lisa Cholodenko, but I found this character supremely irritating, particularly in the way that she plays at being innocent even as she’s pushing her way into Lucy’s life. Every time Syd shows up, Greta can barely restrain herself from rolling her eyes - luckily I rolled mine enough for both of us.

The demi-monde crafted by Cholodenko has the look and feel of authenticity. This isn't a film about heroin chic, but about addicts who can barely stay awake long enough to enjoy their high or who sit around playing scrabble (and not very well). They don't seem like characters, but fully realized people with complex histories. Sheedy and Clarkson are able to give a picture of a fully realized relationship in relatively little screen time, a relationship rooted in drugs, guilt and a mutual need for slow self-destruction. There is affection too, but that's complicated by everything else, which is perhaps what makes a relationship with Syd so appealing to Lucy: it's simpler... or, at least, it would be if Lucy could leave the drugs behind with Greta. Sheedy's performance is densely and wonderfully layered, hitting all the right notes as Lucy navigates her various relationships. I can't imagine the film working as well as it does without her and it's a shame that this role, which at the time seemed like a comeback for her, didn't lead to more substantial parts.

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