I do not envy any filmmaker who dares to dramatise a story about art, artists and the contemporary art world.
Virtually every element of such a story is difficult to show in a convincing and satisfying way: the creative processes of artists; the milieu of critics, dealers and curators; and the valued art objects around which this whole circus spins.
There are few genres so readily open to auto-destruction by cliché, stereotype and convention. Both the absurdly romantic images (painters struggling to imprint their souls on canvas in a torrential outpouring of spontaneous creativity) and the easy jokes (critics as pseudo-intellectual parasites, dealers as money-grubbing vultures) come too quickly to the aid of filmmakers – as Love is the Devil (1998) proved.
And the camera's gaze can be merciless: what fictitious Great Artwork doesn't end up looking a little kitsch on screen, even in a film as brilliant as Jacques Rivette's La Belle noiseuse (1991)?
High Art, the debut feature by writer-director Lisa Cholodenko, survives as well as it does within this minefield by placing its emphasis more on character than on the outward signs of an artistic life. Inevitably, the old clichés lurk nearby in their latest, new-fangled forms. Syd (Radha Mitchell) is an art-theory graduate working at a slick magazine called Frame. She is drawn to the reclusive grunge photographer Lucy (Ally Sheedy) – once lauded, now withdrawn into a lazily decadent circle of low-life friends.
What begins as a professional negotiation soon turns into a personal affair. Syd is clearly driven by an ambiguous, perhaps entirely selfish desire – Lucy offers her a chance to walk on the wild side in all senses, but she can also be exploited for career advancement. Certainly, the ease and speed with which Syd drops her boyfriend, James (Gabriel Mann), to go in sudden pursuit of Sapphic love is disquieting. But Lucy is no poor victim: in many ways, she has the upper hand in this fraught, volatile relationship.
High Art is Mitchell's breakthrough role in American independent cinema, after the Australian film Love and Other Catastrophes (1996) brought her to international attention. She lends just the right combination of innocence, calculation and offhand glamour to Syd – although the spectacle of her dropping names of French philosophers and burbling (with American accent appended) about something called "subverted realism" can sometimes be hard to take.
Sheedy redefines her career with this performance. It has been a long time since her first, early flush of Brat Pack fame in films including The Breakfast Club (1985), and for many viewers she has been simply invisible since – relegated to video-only releases such as Man's Best Friend (1993). In High Art, Sheedy gives a hard, brooding intensity to the Nan Goldin-like character of Lucy, and makes the subtle power-dynamic underlying her relationship with Syd wholly believable.
It is not Sheedy's fault that Cholodenko fails to make credible all of the plot moves concerning the fate of Lucy's photo-art.
But perhaps the true star of the film is Patricia Clarkson, playing Lucy's longstanding lover, Greta. Clarkson's portrayal of this haunted, lost soul is droll and mesmerising. We never lose sight of Greta's pride or her perceptiveness – as when she ingeniously labels Syd a "psychophant".
Where audiences may have trouble accepting Syd as a typical postmodern intellectual, or Lucy as a representative post-punk artist, Greta poses no such problem: she is the definitive hanger-on, living off past glories and associations – a crushed flower who is half-poet, half-poseur, familiar from every real-life cultural scene that has ever existed.
Although there are clumsy, inauthentic, half-formed aspects to High Art, it contains enough emotional integrity to become a compelling and original drama about the difficult lifestyle of art.
MORE Cholodenko: Laurel Canyon
© Adrian Martin March 1999