January 12, 2004

Not Your Average Love Story


After a recent re-viewing of Lisa Cholodenko's excellent film Laurel Canyon, starring Christian Bale and Frances McDormand, PCC decided that it was high time to rent Cholodenko's first film, High Art (no pun intended). A love triangle with a twist, High Art stars Ally Sheedy as Lucy Berliner, a once-famous photographer living the reclusive bohemian life in New York City with her washed-up German actress lover, Greta (the always wonderful Patricia Clarkson). Lucy accidentally meets Syd (Radha Mitchell), an assistant editor at a prestigious photography magazine, Frame, when Syd's notices that her ceiling is leaking and comes to investigate the apartment above her, where Lucy lives with Greta. The two immediately hit it off, though at first the attraction appears to be platonic, especially since Syd lives happily downstairs with her straight-laced boyfriend, James (Gabriel Mann). The relationship between the two women starts to become more than friendly after Syd slips into Lucy's hipster world of drugs and parties, convincing her new friend to come out of her self-imposed retirement. The love that grows between Syd and Lucy is complicated by the jealous Greta, Lucy's drug habit and the pressure to produce a cover piece for Frame worthy of Lucy's obvious talent. Without giving away the ending, suffice it to say that this is not a love story where everyone walks away happy.

While the actual story of the film, which was written and directed by Cholodenko, isn't especially brilliant and at times even feels contrived, the dimension the actresses bring to their characters elevates the film to a whole new level. Sheedy in particular is brilliant in her portrayal of Lucy, whose emotions seem to boil right under the surface. Equal parts angry artist disgusted by the corporate machine and caring lover, Sheedy's Lucy strides so confidently through the film- the epitome of heroin-chic with her boyish frame and thin, veiny arms- that you are almost convinced that she's really as tough as she claims. But her subltle mannerisms, especially the nervous flicking of cigarette ash, allow us to see a woman torn between a comfortable, yet self-destructive existence, and the promise of a fresh start. Mitchell's role isn't as demanding or layered as Sheedy's, but she plays the seemingly naive, passionate Syd with great ease, never letting herself slip into the role of a child in awe of the "grown-ups" (i.e. Lucy and Greta) around her.

The other cornerstone of the film is Patricia Clarkson's name-dropping Greta, who mentions the late German director Fassbinder every chance she gets. Her love for Lucy is obvious, but so is the control she holds over her younger lover, manipulating her through guilt and just a touch of masochism in the form of excessive heroin use. But even in her drugged haze, Clarkson makes Greta feel real, not a charicature or a figure for comic relief. We know that Lucy can only fall with Greta, but part of us feels sorry for the deluded redhead who likes to remind us how Fassbinder would have done it.

Posted by jordan at January 12, 2004 2:36 AM

"High Art" ... so good! #8 on my `99 Grahammy Awards and Clarkson picked up my Best Supporting Actress. thanks for reminding me of this movie, it's rental time, baby!

Posted by: Uncle Grambo at January 12, 2004 6:46 PM