Under the bright lights of this dissection and examination sits
Lucy, who made a splash in the photography world a decade before,
As the two women become drawn together they also leech off each other, with Lucy gradually climbing out of her self-obsessed, drug-induced stupor while showing Syd that other worlds live and breathe outside of her ambitious, job-focused existence.
But Lucy isn’t as strong as Syd, and finally her isolation from the world and her constant need to escape overwhelm her, despite the pull of Syd’s honest yet naive adoration.
The characters of High Art are dissected to such a minute degree that it makes us squirm, almost as if we’re seeing too much. Our voyeuristic tendencies are fed generously as the film shows us a slice of life that is both fascinating and horrible to watch.
This could have backfired: if the characters weren’t so full and developed this technique would have simply highlighted the flaws in the screenplay. As it is, despite everything that we see, we end up feeling that we’ve actually been allowed to witness only an inkling of their lives — that there’s even more depth and carnage to be explored underneath the cracked and wrinkled veneer.
Films that have photography or filmmaking as
Isolation is everywhere in this film. It lingers in the lighting and sparse sets, the awkwardness of conversations, relationships and the harshness of the competition in Syd’s repressive office. Only Lucy’s photography, and the feeling when Lucy and Syd are together, give us any relief from the repressive atmosphere that fills every centimeter of the screen.
Of course everything in this film screams that how we present things, how things are framed, means everything. In case we missed that point, the magazine Syd works on is even called “Frame.” People, objects and to some extent even dialogue in the picture are all in the exact right place. Lucy’s apartment is a treasure trove, an intimate look into her mind that can only be gauged by seeing the things she surrounds herself with. A simple scan of her apartment reveals so much about Lucy, which is why the camera spends so much time sweeping in a circular motion, lingering on important details.
Cholodenko is a scholar of the visual image, as she aptly demonstrates in this film (and later, in Laurel Canyon). High Art is a dense film and many people may find the going difficult, not to mention downright depressing. It’s certainly not a film I watch to make a happy evening brighter. It does however contain intense emotional connections.
Just watching this tender, fragile relationship developing — where you know everything can and will fall apart at any moment — gives an immense level of satisfaction. When Lucy gives Syd the series of pictures she has developed of her for submission to Syd’s magazine, saying “This is it – it’s all about you right now,” you just know something has grown between them that neither of the characters has even grasped yet. That this is the last time they will see each other is unthinkable.
The isolation Syd and Lucy felt was overcome, if only for the briefest of moments, and we know Syd will no longer throw away her talent and ambition on anything not worthy of her, not now that she knows what passion and love really mean, and how easy a thing life is to waste.