"If all art is ultimately about itself, self-reflexive
art draws the viewers attention to that fact. Art is made its
own subject when its fictional pretexts refer to its modes of
creation, of execution, of performance."
-- Charles Affron
High Art is a self-conscious and haunting examination
of two lives that intersect, painfully and without mercy.
Lisa Cholodenko, in an ambitious feature film debut, has written
a screenplay that doesn't just show her characters and their lives,
it also examines them, meticulously, pointing out every flaw,
every weakness, every strength, every misstep. The characters
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 we're shown 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, everything that is put under a microscope, we end up feeling
that we've actually been allowed to witness only an inkling of
their lives. There's even more depth, more carnage to be explored
underneath the cracked and wrinkled veneer we are shown.
Films that have photography or filmmaking as part of the plot
almost invariably become self-referential and explore what it
means to create the photographic image as art. High Art
is no exception. 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
scrutinised, with Cholodenko having very little good to say about
the so-called elite of the art world.
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 filmic coincidences we've learned
to just accept (and really this is the only leap of faith we're
asked to make) Syd just happens to live downstairs from off-beat
cult photographer Lucy Berliner (a not-a-moment-too-soon comeback
from 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,
ex-Fassbinder actress Greta. (The Fassbinder reference seems to
be another subtle, yet intriguing self-referential dig at the
"high-brow" art world in general.) Meeting Syd reawakens
things inside her that she thought she had lost; real passion
for another human being, a liking of herself and ambition in her
life and her art.
As the two women become drawn together they also leach off each
other, with Lucy gradually climbing out of her self-obsessed drug-fucked
stupor while simultaneously showing Syd that other worlds live
and breathe outside of her ambitious, job-focussed existance.
But Lucy isn't as strong as Syd. Finally her isolation from the
world and her constant need to escape overwhelm her, despite the
pull of Syd's honest yet naive adoration.
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 centimetre 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 has shown herself very early on to be a scholar of
the visual image. 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. In the end we know
that 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.
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A version of this review can also be found at www.afterellen.com.