Film: High Art - Suffering for your Barthes

The Big Picture
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Those who like to lose it at the movies may panic at the prospect of High Art. Here's a typical exchange between the main characters, Syd (Radha Mitchell), a critical theory graduate trying to make it in the world of New York art magazine publishing, and Lucy (Ally Sheedy), a retired photographer. Syd to Lucy: "This picture really ties into Barthes' whole conception of photographic ecstasy... the way he explores temporality and memory and meaning... Am I going on too much?" Lucy to Syd: "No, I haven't been deconstructed in a long time."

The only indigestible buzz word missing here is hermeneutics. Could a film sound more dustily academic? The surprise is that this scene, like so many others in High Art, is full of tight, juicy eroticism - the sort that makes your stomach squirm in dread and anticipation. The clue, perhaps, is in the ambiguous title. High as in brow, but also high as a kite: blissed out, blasted, poised to take a big, life-threatening fall.

Lucy knows about both sorts of high. She's a junkie, joined at the crotch to fellow addict Greta, a German actress still heroically mourning the death of Rainer Fassbinder. Greta is also Lucy's muse - the dazed centre of her "cutting edge" photography. But the arrival of straight-in-every- way Syd (she lives downstairs and only pops up to fix a leak) disturbs their equilibrium.

Knowing it will earn her brownie points at the magazine, Syd asks Lucy to start work again. Lucy reluctantly agrees and creative/sexual sparks start to fly. The film's question is: will this new relationship - bound up as it is with notions of success and celebrity - make Lucy or break her?

Ally Sheedy is perfectly cast. Something of a post-retiree herself, having all but disappeared since her days as sullen mascot for the Brat Pack, her Lucy oozes brittle machismo. With that Wicked Witch of the West chin and Jack Nicholson smile, she's also weirdly attractive.

The viewer's fear, initially at least, is that first-time writer-director Lisa Cholodenko wants to romanticise her "outsider" artist. But as quickly becomes clear, Lucy is a half-formed being, a pickled adolescent, alternately sarcastic and coy. Only gradually, as she shakes off the vinegar, are we allowed to feel the thumping panic beneath. Only then does she become real. And lovable.

The same goes for Syd - only when you realise you're allowed to mistrust her do you relax into Mitchell's performance. Syd, curvy and soft like the young Maria Schneider, is forever tucking her hands into her sleeves and acting the cute kid, but her ambition is central to the plot. Neither virgin redeemer nor minx, Syd's just feeling her way.

About to consummate the relationship with Lucy, her eyes zigzag in panic, then tears slide down her face. Lucy asks, "Are you OK?", and you have no idea what the reply will be. When she says, "I think I'm in love with you", it's entirely convincing: Syd would say something like this, even though we're unsure whether Lucy should believe her. This is a film in which people don't say what they think, or indeed think what they feel. It's the gaps, yawning between the cliches, that tell us what we need to know.

Just as crucial to the film's uncomfortable charm is Patricia Clarkson's Greta, a vision of hair dye and pan-stick, one eye half-closed, like a chink in her armour she's permanently trying to mend. The part could easily have been played for laughs but Clarkson (until now wasted in films like Jumanji) keeps her character tottering between tragedy and farce. Greta's decadence hides a deep conservatism, but she's something of a Lenny Bruce, too. Instantly suspicious of Syd, Greta's attacks are good enough to steal. "Where's the teenager?" she screams at Lucy. "Where's your little psycho-fant?"

So the love triangle works superbly. Admittedly, though, there are problems with High Art. Cholodenko pokes fun at the pretentious art world (presenting us with editors so dreadful you imagine Satan writing their paychecks) and yet makes a big deal of its endorsement. Do we really need the scene where the "uncompromising" artwork is presented to the head honchos, causing them to sit up straight and cry "Wow, this is amazing"?

Of course, there's more to it than that. Cholodenko likes arty photography (she has played muse to the San Francisco photographer JoJo Whilden for many years and managed to get the celebrated Nan Goldin to work on some of the photographs in the film). Cholodenko belongs to the scene she's attempting to send up (like John Waters, who adopted a similar tack in Pecker). Which means that if you don't like arty photography - if Larry Clark and Nan Goldin aren't your gods - you're doomed to find many of High Art's reverential moments ludicrous. As Syd flicks through the magazine full of Lucy's soft-focus erotica (which wouldn't look out of place in FHM), the music gets all misty-eyed. All this viewer did was snigger.

But these are minor quibbles. Beautifully shot and hauntingly scored (by indie band Shudder To Think), this film stays in the bloodstream long after the credits have rolled. One testament to its power is how protective you feel of Sheedy and Mitchell. Will Sheedy's return to the limelight prove too much for her? As for Mitchell (formerly a bit-player on Neighbours), her career - like Syd's - has been given a great push by High Art. Suddenly she's on all sorts of magazine covers. Will she be able to cope with celebrity?

Cholodenko herself has jokingly complained that the film's success has endangered her "mental health". Is a good deconstruction really worth all this fuss? After watching High Art, you'd have to say yes.

Anthony Quinn is on holiday