In Black Swan, Natalie Portman plays a prima ballerina with problems. She’s just been entrusted with a role she has no idea how to play. She lives with her mother, a bitter and broken-down control freak who comes on like Piper Laurie in Carrie. She’s scorned by her role model. She sees visions of her doppelgänger in mirrors, in construction walkways, and even in the bathroom. It’s possible that she’s growing wings. She may have an imaginary friend. She may be a virgin. She needs to get laid.
I first encountered Monika Treut when wandering the aisles of The Video Station, the great video-rental emporium in Boulder, Colorado, where her playful, enigmatic, and slightly unsettling lesbian art film Virgin Machine sported perhaps the most provocative box art in the entire German-language section. I liked Virgin Machine a lot. But then there are many things I liked a lot in 1989 that I’d be vaguely embarrassed by today. After I finished watching Ghosted, Treut’s newest film, I found myself digging out my decades-old VHS copy of Virgin Machine to try and square my memories of Treut’s earlier film with my experience of her latest. Virgin Machine still seemed weird and wonderful, and its star Ina Blum, first researching the idea of romantic love in Germany, then searching for her mother in the Oz of San Francisco, felt like she could be Treut’s Anna Karina, her face and form the text and subtext of so many shots early in the film, before Susie Bright (nee Sexpert) shows up and helps her learn to have fun exploring eroticism. Its black-and-white, borderline expressionist aesthetic aside, Virgin Machine feels a little like an early Godard film where the anti-capitalist screeds have replaced by cheerful pro-sex polemics.
The most unfortunate aspect of High Art may be its clunky title, a double entendre that raises an eyebrow at the drug-soaked habits of its bohemian characters. At the same time, it promises a criticism of the commercial art world that never quite gels, no matter how hard director Lisa Cholodenko struggles to bring it together. At best, High Art is romantic, tragic, and scrupulously well performed. And at worst, it just strings together all those hoary cliches about creative types for whom intensity, drugs, and self-destruction come hand in hand without really exploring why or how they became intense, addicted, and destroyed.
The story takes a few sour jabs at chic Manhattan, first making fun of the self-absorbed drones who run a photography magazine called Frame. Earnest protagonist Syd (Radha Mitchell) has been promoted to assistant editor, but quickly finds that her job description involves fetching coffee and playing lapdog to her superiors rather than taking any hand in the magazine’s editorial direction.
Of course, Syd has a sharper eye for talent than her boss — when she visits upstairs neighbor Lucy (Ally Sheedy) to investigate a leak, she recognizes the photos hung all over the walls as the work of some kind of genius. As mad coincidence would have it, this isn’t just any Lucy, but rather Lucy Berliner, a celebrated photographer who vanished from the New York art scene nearly a decade ago. These days, Lucy spends her time taking snapshots of her wastrel friends and snorting lines of heroin with lover Greta (Patricia Clarkson), a faded beauty and ex-actress who keeps murmuring about Fassbinder in a nearly impenetrable accent.
Syd takes a professional and personal interest in Lucy, persuading her to come out of retirement to shoot a cover feature for Frame. Lucy agrees, but insists that Syd be her editor on the project. Before long, the two of them have traveled somewhere upstate, where Lucy seduces the not-unwilling Syd in what are easily the movie’s best and truest scenes. Forget the art world — High Art‘s best feature is its naturalistic look at sex and intimacy.
This is the heralded indie comeback of Sheedy, a member of the young Hollywood of a decade ago (she was the sullen loner in The Breakfast Club) who unwisely squandered herself on cute stuff like Short Circuit and Maid to Order. She brings an almost frightening gauntness and a slow burn to this role — exactly what’s called for. Better still is the un-selfconscious Mitchell as an guileless youngster struggling to orient herself in a subculture that’s more repellent than fascinating.
There’s the problem. There’s little to indicate just what’s attractive about the world of Lucy Berliner and her circle of friends, talented though she may be. Cholodenko shoots Lucy’s apartment as a forbidding, shadowy enclave full of smack but bereft of humor or warmth. It all points toward the inevitable conclusion, which manages to be both vaguely moving and unforgivably maudlin. Cholodenko has a remarkable and admirable empathy for her characters (even the whining Greta), but the prefab New York art scene feels too beat for High Art to have any lasting impact.