High Art (1998) is a self-conscious and haunting examination of two lives that intersect,painfully and without mercy. Writer/director Lisa Cholodenko, in an ambitious feature film debut, has written a screenplay that doesn’t just show her characters and their lives, it meticulously scrutinizes them, pointing out every flaw, every weakness, every strength, every misstep.
Under the bright lights of this dissection and examination sits Syd (Australian actress Radha Mitchell), a young girl trying to make it in the cutthroat and personality-deficient world of photography magazine editing. In one of those cinematic coincidences we’ve learned to love and accept (and really this is the only leap of faith the director asks us to make), Syd just happens to live downstairs from off-beat cult photographer Lucy Berliner (a not-a-moment-too-soon comeback role for the gorgeous Ally Sheedy).
Lucy, who made a splash in the photography world a decade before, has turned her back on the art world in disgust, falling haphazardly into a heroin-riddled haze, together with some friends and a girlfriend, Greta (Patricia Clarkson). Meeting Syd reawakens things inside Lucy that she thought she had lost: real passion for another human being, and a liking of herself and ambition in her life and her art.
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 part of the plot almost invariably become self-referential and explore what it takes to create the photographic image as art. High Art is no different. As Lucy says to Syd, “I haven’t been deconstructed in a while.” Not only are the characters picked to pieces, but so is the photographic image and the reasons behind creativity. The construction and appreciation of imagery at all levels is scrutinized, with Cholodenko having very little good to say about the so-called elite of the art world.
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.
Despite the oppressiveness of the film, I found some hope in the ending. I don’t think it is Cholodenko’s intention to show that love fails or that dedication to your goals is ultimately pointless. Real progress is made by every character in the film (except perhaps Greta, whose hopeless existence simply highlights the progress Lucy has made).
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.