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Cold Dish of Careerism

[whitespace] High Art
Nightmare Ally: Lucky Berliner (Ally Sheedy, right) gives impressionable young photography lover Syd (Radha Mitchell) a scary taste of heroin chic.

Lisa Cholodenko's icy 'High Art' turns from chic comedy to humiliation

By Richard von Busack

IN ONE OF THE YEAR'S best films, two very different ways of looking at the world fight each other to a draw. High Art is an icy New York comedy that metamorphoses into a story of humiliation. Underneath professions of love are the shadows of a young girl's cold careerism, and an artist's celebrated talent conceals numbness and cruelty.

Director/writer Lisa Cholodenko sets the story at Frame, an imaginary international photography magazine where Syd (Radha Mitchell) is a glorified intern. An assistant editor, Syd runs errands for the surly management: Dominique (Ahn Duong), an ex-Interview receptionist who climbed her way up, and Harry (David Thornton), who looks like a nastier version of Jeff Goldblum. By chance, Syd meets her upstairs neighbor Lucy Berliner (Ally Sheedy), a once-hot art photographer who has pastured herself out to heroin. Syd's rediscovery of Berliner triggers a mutual seduction.

The younger girl is fascinated by Lucy's work, mostly color portraits of her friends. (The pictures, by Jojo Whilden, are modeled on the photography of Nan Goldin.) Syd's freshness also stimulates Lucy, a burnt-out case whose current occupation in life is caretaking her live-in lover, Greta (Patricia Clarkson), an exhausted German junkie coasting on her former career as a Fassbinder starlet.

Syd loves Lucy's work, but mixed in with her fascination is an attraction for the artist's life, for the nonstop drug party that Lucy is hosting. Syd cuts her gentle but passive boyfriend, James (Gabriel Mann), loose in order to get to know Lucy as both editor and lover.

High Art is somber on the subject of careerism in the arts, capturing the particular ruthlessness and selfishness found there. Still, it's an often comic film, and it's electric with sexual tension. There's a lot of chemistry between the two leads. Sheedy's scenes with Mitchell enliven the older actress; the shifty gaze calms and warms, as if Lucy dealt with shy little groupies every day. (I've seen Sheedy dismissed as an aging brat-packer. She hasn't had much worthwhile material in the past 10 years, so it's easy to forget how strong she was in The Breakfast Club--before she got that stupid makeover in the ending, anyway.)

Sheedy, tougher, grainier and warier than she's been in the past, can still put a girlish spin on a line like "It's been a long time since I've been deconstructed." Her scenes with her wealthy, fretful mom aren't quite as good; Sheedy looks hesitant and stiff, as if she were acting and thinking at the same time. It's a pleasure to see Tammy Grimes as Lucy's mother, sporting an Alec Guinness-style German accent--Lucy comes from money, possibly a reference to Diane Arbus' own wealthy background.

Still, the prize for best German accent this year goes to Clarkson as Greta, a Nico-esque wraith--a bass-voiced modern-day Dietrich too tired even for a chat on the telephone. She gives a harsh, funny performance. Clarkson, ex of Murder One, has worked hard in the movies, in pictures like The Dead Pool and Jumanji, and this should be a much deserved breakthrough for her.

THE STORY'S CIRCLE of mistreatment revolves around Lucy's heroin problem, but High Art isn't a preachy film. Cholodenko is unimpressed with heroin chic, either as a source of horror or moral instruction. (In a director's statement, she claims that High Art's beginning came from reading about how au courant the needle-freak look was becoming in advertising and fashion photography.)

Cholodenko presents the drugged life and the straight life as two different realms, like land and water. Syd is introduced with the device of a leaking drain that drips through Lucy's ceiling. Lucy shows Syd photos of Greta taken underwater, and it's as if Syd were lured by the cold-blooded marine life in Lucy's apartment. (Shudder to Think's limpid music also makes Lucy's apartment seem like an aquarium.)

At the end of the film, Syd is cast out; it's as if she were shipwrecked. In some ways, High Art is about the defloration of a baby-faced innocent who needs the dew sponged out of her eyes. But the final twist--it's worthy of Maupassant, I think--doesn't carry a sense of inevitable moral rightness, of justice being served. You feel for Syd, when she's exposed and shamed. She asked for it, but she didn't deserve it.

High Art (R; 101 min.), directed and written by Lisa Cholodenko, photographed by Tami Reiker and starring Ally Sheedy and Radha Mitchell.

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From the June 18-24, 1998 issue of Metro.

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