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High Art
cast: Ally Sheedy, Radha Mitchell, Patricia Clarkson, and Gabriel Mann

director: Lisa Cholodenko

102 minutes (18) 1998
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
TLA DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
Another DVD from TLA Releasing, another story of unhappy straight men finding the right guy, realising they are gay and eventually finding happiness in a nirvana of tacky night-clubs and shirtless face-sucking...

Oh. Hang on. This is not that kind of film at all!

Lisa Cholodenko's High Art is a coolly cerebral and yet undeniably visceral portrait of ambition, faded glamour and the subordination of one's sexuality to one's career goals. In other words, it is a retelling of the story of Faust except instead of making a deal with the devil in order to get the girl, High Art's protagonist makes a deal with the girl in order to become the devil.

Syd (Radha Mitchell) is a girl with a plan. Having studied critical theory at university, she managed to land an intern's position at too-cool-for-school photography magazine 'Frames'. She is young, she is pretty, she has an attractive boyfriend and a nice flat, but she is moving up the ladder far too slowly. Despite being promoted to assistant editor, she still finds herself doing menial jobs ("who are you assisting?" asks the faux-naif receptionist). That is until she realises that she is living downstairs from Lucy Berliner (Ally Sheedy), a photographer who was poised to take the photographic world by storm until she turned her back on it all and walked away.

Lucy is a lesbian in a relationship with Greta (Patricia Clarkson), a magnificently Fassbinder-esque former actress and beauty turned mumbling junkie. Having not worked for a decade, Lucy lives on her family's money and uses her shabbily chic apartment as a drop-in centre for a cadre of ageing hipster junkies. In one fantastic scene, we get a glimpse of what Lucy and Greta were in a previous life. Greta, having shovelled a large portion of Columbian marching powder up her nose encounters an old friend who speaks animatedly about having received a MacArthur 'genius grant'. Though Greta is now nothing but a husk, she was once part of the artistic cream. This is also true of Lucy.

Lucy was a great photographer and she instantly takes an interest in the young Syd. Slowly, the two women dance a tentative waltz of seduction around each other. Lucy craves Syd's beauty, but Syd craves Lucy's talent and access. Before long she is getting high and snogging Lucy whilst convincing her to come out of retirement for one last photo-shoot... the cover of 'Frames'.

Having been burned by success before, Lucy starts to flake out. A situation not helped by Greta's growing jealousy and suicidal depression over Lucy's budding relationship with Syd. Sensing that Lucy might be slipping back into her smack-fuelled haze, Syd agrees to go away to the country with her, thus ending her relationship with James (Gabriel Mann) who astutely realises that Syd's sexual chameleon act is part of a larger plan. Indeed, Syd's ambition is such that she will not only throw away her relationship with James, she will prostitute herself by consenting to be seduced by Lucy despite her lack of physical attraction for women. In one awesome scene, the couple get into bed together and Syd's reluctance is evident. After some mild foreplay, the camera pans up to reveal Syd's tear-streaked face. She is not happy. She doesn't like it, but she knows this is the price of success. "I'm just so in love with you," Syd offers as a weak and insincere explanation.

Upon returning home, Lucy breaks up with Greta and provides Syd with two sets of photos. One is of Greta underwater; a stilted and unoriginal set of obviously staged photos. The others are intimate and sensuous pictures of Syd taken during their weekend together. Syd's desolation and unease is obvious in every photo. Realising that Lucy wants to know whether she should go back to Greta or stay with her, Syd insists that she present the pictures of Greta to the magazine. It is only once they are turned down and Syd sees 'her' cover evaporating that she offers up the pictures of her. "Are you her lover?" asks Syd's boss. Syd pauses and crosses her arms before answering that she is.

As in Gounod's operatic telling of Faust, it is the love objects who suffer the most for the bargain made by the protagonist. James is casually cast aside despite his love for Syd and Lucy is manipulated and used up. The flakiness that once pushed Lucy into walking away from a career in photography and towards the life of a hipster junkie reasserts itself after a tearful confrontation with Greta, Syd is informed that Lucy died. She may actually be dead or she may merely be dead to Syd but, either way, Lucy's creative temperament is crushed in Syd's pursuit of a cover.

Cholodenko's direction is not only languid, but also tepid. Despite themes of love, ambition, betrayal and death, the film never rises above body temperature. The tone seems to be entirely dictated by the lethargic lives of Lucy and her entourage. The final off-screen death of Lucy feels like a minor cop-out but its emotional cowardice is certainly in keeping with the characters that populate this occasionally mesmerising film.

Rhada Mitchell does well as the faux-ing´┐Żnue. Her apparent innocence belied by her intellectual intensity and the tactical use of forceful tone of voice against the delicate Lucy. Ally Sheedy maintains the charisma that ensured her immortality through the 'brat pack' films of the 1980s but here it is infused with a genuinely and almost coltish fragility. Despite Lucy's brave front, it is clear that she is fighting for her life and it is clear why Sheedy has spoken of the role not only as a watershed moment in her career but also as the role with which she has most identified during her long career.

A great film that was long overdue a region 2 DVD release.
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