Amid the current cycle of films that exist primarily to exhibit an excruciatingly fetching array of young refugees from popular TV shows, I’ve got to say that it’s kinda nice to see a teen movie that harks back, unashamedly, to the days of sexually frank, borderline-offensive comedies about growing up with a dirty mind.
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.
Somewhere in the middle of Crash, the remarkable new film from David Cronenberg, James Ballard (James Spader) is caught in traffic. The cars on the highway are at a standstill, stymied by an impact farther up the blacktop. Ballard is driving a vintage Lincoln Continental, the kind of convertible JFK rode through Dallas. The car belongs to Ballard’s new friend Vaughan (Elias Koteas, from Exotica), a visionary of sorts who sees car crashes as “fertilizing,” rather than destructive, events. In the car with Ballard and Vaughan is Ballard’s wife, Catherine (Deborah Kara Unger), who is growing more and more attracted to Vaughan — she and Ballard seem to achieve sexual bliss more and more often by comparing notes on their most recent adulteries. You could almost consider this menage a trois a special kind of post-nuclear family.
Breaking the Waves, a powerful fable from Danish director Lars von Trier (Zentropa, The Kingdom) is as daunting as it is satisfying. The satisfaction comes from von Trier’s audacious and ever-deepening sense for filmmaking — Breaking the Waves is his most ambitious and skillfully drawn narrative so far, and it offers the pleasure of undertaking an uncertain journey, unsure of where it might all end. That’s also what’s daunting. Breaking the Waves is epic in scope, careering wildly from warm and fleshy love story to grim tragedy to something else entirely over the course of its 158 minutes. It’s a film that demands your rapt attention bit by bit, plumbing ever-deeper corners of the soul and plunging at one point into the abyss. Finally, once it’s over, it will return day by day to haunt its audiences. This is seriously nervy filmmaking.
Joe “Woman Trouble” Eszterhas reteams with ace stylist Paul Verhoeven, who should know better, to create this bumbling epic of a skin flick. The bulk of the movie is pretty dopey, albeit kind of entertaining. But the World According to Eszterhas, as revealed in an unbearably hostile, stridently righteous final reel, is so smelly and distasteful that Showgirls is, finally, truly and thoroughly repellent.
Near the beginning of Angels and Insects, our romantic protagonist courts the object of his very sexual affections in odd fashion. That scene, which involves a veritable swarm of butterflies and moths crawling across the woman’s clothing and skin, is a good indicator of the film’s ambitions. Putting a Victorian estate under the microscope, Angels and Insects postulates that this family unit, with sons, daughters and servants all tending slavishly to the needs of a bloated matriarch, is something less sophisticated and more distasteful than your average backyard ant farm.
William Adamson (Mark Rylance) is an outsider among the blueblooded Alabasters, the family whose patriarch, Sir Harald (Jeremy Kemp), rescued the young naturalist from a disastrous shipwreck. He is allowed to live with the Alabasters as Harald’s assistant, and swiftly falls under the spell of the oldest daughter, Eugenia (Patsy Kensit). This courtship among the insects is the film’s most direct metaphor, and its most satisfying conceit. As William confesses his love to Eugenia, he looses upon her what first seem to be the world’s loveliest butterflies. But soon, Eugenia is beset by the unsightly male counterparts to the beautiful females, which crawl across her body, drawn by female pheromones.
The trauma of that experience isn’t enough to derail the romance, which unfolds to the chagrin of Eugenia’s brother, Edgar (Douglas Henshall), who considers William an unfit suitor. Edgar’s sneering insults grow more and more provocative, but William resists his verbal exhortations to physical battle and marries Eugenia. His assimilation into the family is thus made literal, and Harald seems rather fond of the young man — but Edgar won’t let up, spouting continually about how little William knows of the world, and the significance of his improper breeding.
This socio-scientific Darwinism is as much a key to Angels and Insects as are the butterfly and ant-farm metaphors (when Eugenia proves herself to be less than an ideal lover, William bides his time with a detailed study of an ant colony on the estate). For the first hour or so, I was sitting on the edge of my seat, gamely tracking all of the asides, double entendres, and allegorical declamations. Philip Haas’s screenplay tries to cram all the thematic concerns of its source material (the novella Morpho Eugenia, by retro-Victorian scribe A.S. Byatt) into the two-hour space of a feature film, but it’s a little much.
Those concerns spill over from the story and dialogue into the film’s visual grammar, as well. While the overall production design is sumptuous and striking, the movie’s infatuation with its own color sceme grows tiring. For instance, when Kensit turns up in one of her show-stopping gowns, an unlikely peacock blue fringed in blood red, the effect is an imperfect distillation of the Peter Greenaway Effect — decidely garish in appearance, but relatively graceless in execution. More effective for my money is the less specific sense of dread that infuses the proceedings, especially in the scenes leading up to the marriage of the unlikely lovers.
So maybe it’s because the film wore me out in its first section that I found the second half fairly tedious. It’s mostly a waiting game. We know that Kristin Scott Thomas (she plays Matty Crampton, the family tutor) gets billing above Kensit, so her role will soon become prominent. The ad campaign has assured us that there’s a “startling” revelation in the final reels, but the punch is telegraphed across most of the movie. And, of course, we know that something’s got to give — and it does.
That having been said, the movie does have its pleasures. The performances are decidedly less mannered than we’ve come to expect from costume drama, and Rylance and Henshall make deliciously credible intellectual adversaries. I’ll even go out on a limb for Kensit, whose vaguely unsettling concupiscent charms have never before been put to such perfect use. The cinematography is lush and surprising, and the atmosphere is boldly creepy.
The opening credits sequence, which flash back to Adamson and a troupe of Amazonian dancers frolicking in the firelight, is more honestly sexual than anything that follows, and we get the sense that he was never happier than he was among the natives (as if to underscore the point, the titular letters spelling out Angels cross the screen in front of the dancers). This sequence, beautifully edited by the director’s wife, Belinda Haas, helps us understand the libidinous freedom that Adamson craves, even as he takes a luscious wife in an ostensible paradise. While the inhabitants of a less seething Victorian tableaux might negotiate apparently charmed paths to a satisfying but unlikely happy ending, we are made to grow more and more certain that the only resolution to the Victorian dilemma postulated by Angels and Insects is escape.
David Cronenberg’s debut feature prefigured both Alien and AIDS with its tale of parasites — a metaphorical sexually transmitted disease — that turn humans into nymphomaniacal zombies as they move from host to host, infecting the residents of a Canadian apartment complex. Like other early Cronenberg films, the movie has a low-key immediacy that makes the perversions of its milieu all the more distressing. Shivers is the original Canadian title of this film. If you’re looking for it in the U.S., the title is They Came From Within. The movie was originally edited for U.S. consumption, but as far as I can tell, the most recently released TCFW videocassette (Vestron Video VA4403) is identical to the Canadian cut of Shivers except for the title.
Update 09/18/10: In the intervening decade and a half since I originally wrote this paragraph, Shivers has come into wide, easy availability on DVD and then gone back out of print again. Cronenberg deserves better distribution.
After the final reel of Exotica had unspooled, like a slender key filling the last hole in a wooden puzzlebox, a woman at the New York Film Festival screening last year had a question for director Atom Egoyan. She wanted to know what happened at the end of the movie. Visibly perturbed at the question, Egoyan dodged it. Heads craned as the woman pressed for his answer. She explained that she had seen each of Egoyan’s previous films, had enjoyed them tremendously; it was just this film, she said, this was the one that she didn’t “get.” Finally, Egoyan gave in and answered her question. Here is what the last scene in the film meant, he explained, his four- or five-word declamation a stark and numbing negation of the gentle, almost languid spirit of the film, which invites the audience to its own discovery. The “what happened” is simple enough to explain, but you can’t really understand it unless you’re fully caught up in the cinema when it unfolds in front of you.