By Owen Gleiberman
June 19, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

When Syd (Radha Mitchell), the beautiful young assistant editor at the center of High Art (October), knocks on the door of her upstairs neighbor, Lucy Berliner (Ally Sheedy), to check out a leak that’s coming from the ceiling, she has no idea that she’s about to enter a vampires’ lair. Inside, drenched in dank, syrupy light, are Lucy and her friends, a circle of heroin-snorting bohos who look as if they’re about to melt into the furniture. No one reacts, or even moves, yet there is one remote sign of life—the constant, desultory murmuring, as if everyone in the room were in on some joke that didn’t have a punchline.

In High Art, writer-director Lisa Cholodenko, making her feature-film debut, has caught the enraptured impotence of junkie gloom. Unlike Trainspotting, which used music and throttling camera work to put us inside the rush, Cholodenko hangs back, observing the downtown decadence with a voyeuristic shiver. Before long, the tremulous, doe-like Syd takes a few snorts herself, and as she stares at one of Lucy’s photographs, a shot of two women making love, the image begins to move. It’s a moment of abrupt sensual power, with the haze of heroin creating a mystical passage—a stirring of pure, uncut desire.

High Art is a love story in which Lucy, the older, depressed, once-celebrated lesbian photographer who has let the air hiss out of her life, seduces and is reawakened by Syd, who offers Lucy the chance to revitalize her career. To Syd’s shock, she ends up as the erotic core of Lucy’s photographs (which have obviously been modeled on the work of the noted punk shutterbug Nan Goldin). Sheedy, whose own career washed up on the shoals of bad post-Brat Pack movies, acts with a defiant new force and desperation. She has grown up at last, and now, with her beauty burnt to a harsh, bone-pale austerity, it’s as if we’re seeing her for the first time. High Art dawdles in places, and its outline is reminiscent of many other lesbian-awakening films, but Cholodenko shows a dramatic grasp of the ways that romantic sexual yearning can get all jumbled up with ambition and addiction. She gets a fantastic, tragicomic performance out of Patricia Clarkson, who plays Lucy’s longtime Eurotrash lover, the fearlessly self-destructive Greta, as if she were the depraved junkie twin of Marlene Dietrich. High Art understands the horror of heroin, and its power as well. A-

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