High Art (1998): Cholodenko’s Lesbian-Themed Drama, Set in Art World

With The Incredibly True Adventure of Two Girls in Love and the sensitive coming-out drama, All Over Me, both of which showed at Sundance Film Fest, producer Dolly Hall asserted her central position in documenting lesbian lifestyles in all their varied manifestations.
High Art , which Hall produced and Lisa Cholodenko directed, is set in New York’s art world among a triangle of fascinating women.

Cholodenko depicts with unwavering veracity the breakup of one longtime relationship just as another, unexpected one begins. The film’s central axiom is that chance encounters can lead to the most momentous changes in a person’s life. An intricate meditation on love, careerism, and self-sacrifice, Cholodenko’s script, which won the Sundance’s Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, revolves around two women whose paths cross and fates change, as a result of a chance meeting.

Syd (Radha Mitchell), an ambitious editor in-training at “Frame,” an art photography magazine, is romantically involved with James (Gabriel Mann), but, clearly, something is missing from their relationship. Taking a bath one day, she notices a leak from the ceiling and goes upstairs to complain about it. Entering as an outsider, she observes her neighbor, Lucy Berliner (Ally Sheedy), and her friends as they go about their routines–booze, drugs, music. A once-celebrated photographer, Lucy has decided to retire in mid-career.

Living with her heroin-addicted girlfriend Greta (Patricia Clarkson, in a rivetting performance), a former Fassbinder actress, Lucy plays host to hard-living party kids who’re more stoned than sober. The two lived in Berlin for a while, but Greta relocated to New York for Lucy to pursue her calling.

A tentative friendship soon evolves into a passionate affair. Initially, Syd and Lucy come across as opposites. Much younger, Syd strives to achieve recognition in an industry driven by hype. In contrast, Lucy is a disaffected photography prodigy who’s seen it all. However, vulnerable to Syd’s infatuation and her offer to shoot the next cover of “Frame,” Lucy struggles with her present reality. Depicting the women’s step-by-step friendship and transformation, High Art contains one of the most candidly scrutinized sex scenes in American films, showing the awkwardness and heat when an experienced woman makes love to an insecure one.

The culture of “Heroin Chic” is also painstakingly dissected. The complex bond–and inevitable conflict–among the three women embody irony and risk. In a marvelously staged scene, almost too painful to watch, Lucy, who had cleaned up her act, succumbs under pressure from Greta to do heroin again. This silent sequence captures the ambivalent emotions lovers feel between protecting themselves from trouble and yielding into risky situations just to prove commitment to their companions.

Impressive as Cholodenko’s direction is, the film’s emotional impact largely depends on its three central thesps. In a major comeback, Ally Sheedy shakes up her old screen image and emerges as a mature, disciplined actress. As her German lover, Patricia Clarkson excels in portraying an aging, disenchanted actress desperately clinging to Lucy and to drugs. The ravishingly beautiful Rhada Mitchell also registers strong in her touching scenes with Sheedy.