Lucy Berliner and her friends live in slo-mo bliss, spending their days snorting heroin, nodding through intimate, time-indifferent get-togethers, eating in trendy cafes. They move in a druggie's staggered haze, not in a hurry to do anything or get anywhere. It's a lifestyle that's sustained financially by Lucy's trust fund and spiritually by her uncompromised talent. The clique revolves around her, and she, a lauded but cult-figure photographer, has immortalized them in her work. A glamorously seedy aesthetic (both artistic and personal) has been forged by this symbiotic relationship - a relationship where who's using whom is not only in a constant state of flux, but ultimately unimportant. When an ambitious young assistant editor from a hip photo magazine stumbles into their world, the photographer is intrigued and aroused by the girl - even by her dry academic tongue. "I haven't been deconstructed in a long time," says Lucy wryly.
In writer-director Lisa Cholo-denko's clear-eyed feature debut, High Art, issues of art and commerce are fanned through the more primal avenues of eros and sexuality. The nature of exploitation - professional, personal, the ways the two mingle - is the film's subject. More specifically, Cholodenko is interested in exploring exploitation when the lines are blurred between motives, feelings and compartmentalized aspects of one's being. The film's intellectual and emotional power register acutely because Cholodenko manages to be insightful and compassionate without ever drifting into moralizing, without letting any of her characters drift into pure villainy or victimhood.
When Lucy (Ally Sheedy) first encounters Syd (Radha Mitchell), both are in relationships, Lucy with Greta (Patricia Clarkson) and Syd with her boy-friend, James (Gabriel Mann). Both couplings provide the comfort of the doldrums. What really links the women is their connection to the art world. Beneath her cool, almost shy demeanor, Syd is desperate to be a part of that world, to have real power within it. The enormously talented Lucy is in self-imposed exile from the same. Their mutual seduction pivots on knowing how much of themselves to dole out in order to get what they want, and how willing they are to flow with their honest feelings about each other.
It could have been rather dour cinema. Instead, it's hypnotic, funny and deeply moving. Though never slow, the film moves at a measured pace, giving you time to absorb the characters. Wonderful and witty writing helps; so does Cholodenko's fondness for closeups, her willingness to let the actors' faces tell the story. Lucy's photos (by San Francisco-based photo-grapher JoJo Whilden) are reminiscent of Larry Clark and, more to the point, Nan Goldin (whose life seems to have loosely inspired the movie). In fact, scenes set in Lucy's apartment, with her friends indulging in their drugs of choice, mine Goldin's distinctively funky a perspective. For all that, it's the acting and the assured mixture of acting styles and tones that really carry the film.
Sheedy is astonishing, letting fierce intelligence and integrity beam from her chemically dimmed headlights. To her credit, she never lets us doubt for a second that Lucy, a trust-fund baby, is also a radical, even subversive, giving the art world (whose unctuousness is brilliantly lanced by Cholodenko) the finger by claiming her art as her own. The apple-cheeked Mitchell is appropriately hard to read, simultaneously cold and uncertain of herself and her actions. As a perpetually doped-up German actress and former Fassbinder favorite, Clarkson has Greta turn displacement into a grand perform-ance, one that blends comedic and tragic aplomb into one. Even the secondary characters shine - especially Tammy Grimes as Lucy's Holocaust-surviving mother, spitting out inquiries about "the German" whom her daughter's taken up with and pronouncing, as though peeling back a curse, that Lucy is "gifted and passive."
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By the film's finish, we've been slowly pulled into a blur of uncertainty. We know that genuine emotions are at work; it's just not clear to what end and under whose control. We've come to realize that Lucy's self-destructiveness and self-protection instincts are deeply intertwined, and that to sort them out would be to dive into an impossible murk. What makes High Art remarkable is Cholodenko's refusal to put her characters or story through a filter, her unblinking willingness to dive right in.