Film studies: She was always memorable, but look in her eyes now

There's a lot wrong with a new film called High Art (it opens this week) - from the unhelpful title to an ending that is too eager to tidy everything up - but I only noticed the faults on repeated viewings. The first time I saw the picture I could hardly breathe in the delicious, terrible drop of people falling in love. And I couldn't stop looking at Ally Sheedy. Whenever she drifted off screen, I found my head craning to get a better angle on the very dry, very droll wraith she is now. I just wanted to look at her character, Lucy Berliner - and, I suppose, in the stupid way of love that can get you even at the movies, give her a chance to look at me.

Lucy Berliner is the woman who lives upstairs in a New York apartment building, and in a studiously preserved air of Fassbinderism. She is, or was, a photographer once, by which I mean to say she is still a photographer in her eyes and her soul and her neediness, but not professionally. She gave that up, because of all the nonsense of critics and being shown, being "discussed and deconstructed", being a known artist instead of just your everyday, sly, thieving watcher. This is another gaping "error". People like Lucy don't stop "snapping" the world; they don't buy the intellectual pose of withdrawing; they're never going to be able to stop. No, her "retirement" is really just a seductive ploy.

So when Syd comes up from the apartment below, because there's a cold drip falling in her warm bath, Lucy is ready. She lounges in the doorway, just a little woozy from drugs, contemplating the sweet bun that is Syd like someone beginning to feel hungry. And there happen to be some of Lucy's pictures on the bathroom wall, and Syd is, after all, the new assistant editor at Frame, a pretentious but significant photography magazine that comes out of the Village. So, click, as the camera has a habit of saying. Syd is going to see a coup for herself at Frame, and Lucy has sniffed fresh meat.

If, for one moment, you feel disposed to argue that Lucy could never be so calculating, so sinister in her designs, or so far-seeing, I ask you to look in Ally Sheedy's eyes.

I looked the actress up in a book. Alexandra Sheedy was born in New York in 1962, in June; so she's 36 now and was 35 when this film was made - for it opened in the US a full year ago. She is the child of a famous literary agent, and she was "introduced" artistically very early. At the age of six, she was with the American National Ballet. She had published a storybook for children by the time she was 10. And she was writing reviews for the New York Times and the Village Voice at the age of 12.

So she was very smart? Well, if you think that kind of life is right for a child, sure. By the time she was 20, she was an actress, one of the kids in The Breakfast Club (1985), and the lead or second lead in a rush of brat-pack pictures: St Elmo's Fire, Maid to Order, Betsy's Wedding, and so on. She was memorable: not quite as pretty as Molly Ringwald, her frequent chum, maybe, but funnier and more eccentric. So interesting, in fact, that you knew Hollywood was going to be afraid of her when she grew up. Well before she was 30, she was a kind of smart mess, hung up on medicinal drugs and anorexia. It is some measure of what has happened to her, and how much she has thought about it, that her eyes now could be closer to 3,500 than 35. That is not ungallant. It is a way of bowing to an actress who gets her first real part in High Art, and who has walked away with several prizes because of it. If you put Lucy and Gwyneth Paltrow in the same shot, Paltrow would start weeping, like a child asked to sit on a sofa next to a black widow spider.

Sheedy survives the wet dream that is High Art's set-up; she ignores shortcomings in the story; and I suspect that she did a lot to make the new writer-director, Lisa Cholodenko, look good and feel privileged, For she shifts from being the half-comic vampire in the apartment doorway, inspecting the soft, round, innocent Syd, to someone half-dismayed, half- exultant at how she has fallen in love. Syd looks better as the film goes on - because Lucy is looking at her. She behaves with more maturity. She realises what a slick user she was setting herself up to be. And she begins to recognise a possible state of ruin - living ruin - in people like Lucy Berliner. She raises herself enough to fall in love.

For that's all High Art is, really, a love story with a few bedroom scenes that become some of Berliner's greatest stills. The subtlest thing about the whole movie is the way in which it could have been photographed by Lucy - and has her furtive, sensual, sidelong greed for light, skin and faces.

Is it a gay film? Well, of course, yet it's very sad and wide open enough for some male viewers to fall in love with Sheedy (or Lucy), who may be a magical actress, or just a desperate woman. I don't know. I hardly want to find out more. High Art creaks and groans, but it is a movie - like one by Antonioni or Renoir - which says, look closely, but take care what you see, for the sight could scar you.

High Art (18) is released on Friday.