Breaking Out and Flying High

Syd (Radha Mitchell) - High Art

Lisa Cholodenko has recently become a far more familiar name since the success of her fourth film The Kids Are All Right. She has however, been making films for thirteen years, with her debut coming in the shape of 1998’s High Art. Coupled with Laurel Canyon (2002), these two early films share many common threads and offer interesting readings on women, sexuality, liberalism and perhaps even the movie industry itself.

Both films share a similar premise, and focus on the awakenings of, and rebellions by, their female protagonists. In High Art, young magazine intern Syd drifts further away from her steady, dependable boyfriend as she becomes increasingly enticed, both professionally and personally, by drug-addicted photographer Lucy. Whilst in Laurel Canyon, the innocent and naïve Alex is seduced literally and figuratively by her fiancée Sam’s unorthodox, record producer mother and her rock star boyfriend. As Syd is rebelling against the humdrum of heterosexuality, whilst trying to advance her career, so Alex revolts against her work; putting off completing her dissertation in order to shed her timid, book worm persona by getting high with the band and her potential mother-in-law. Cholodenko wants both of her protagonists to have more. Unsatisfied by academic or career related success, Syd and Alex desire freedom from both the bonds said successes encumber, as well as from the conventions of contemporary society; a liberation they find mainly in sexuality and drugs.

Alex (Kate Beckinsale) - Laurel Canyon

[Plot spoilers ahead]

In a male dominated sphere, in which female directors are often pigeon-holed or told they should be making certain types of films, Cholodenko’s early works provide an apt metaphor for women filmmakers as a whole. Yet interestingly however, the outcome is largely negative for both Syd and Alex. Having left her boyfriend and gained a front cover thanks to her lover Lucy’s pictures, Syd is left alone and distraught as Lucy dies from an overdose; perhaps alluding to the difficulties women face in balancing a successful personal and professional life. Similarly, at the conclusion of Laurel Canyon it is inferred that Alex will too be alone, as Sam, having discovered his fiancée’s dalliances, appears as though he will leave after simultaneously harbouring growing feelings for another woman; showing that liberation and freedom come at a cost.

In spite of these possibly pessimistic conclusions, Cholodenko certainly rebels against the aforementioned difficulties female directors face. And as well as familiar thematic strands, her first two features also share stylistic similarities – in the sense that the filmic form she produces, matches and compliments the content of each plot. In High Art, the cinematography is distinctive and fitting for its imperfection, slightly drained colour tone and raw photographic quality. In Laurel Canyon on the other hand, Cholodenko switches her focus to music, and the film’s soundtrack, which encompasses both diagetic and non-diagetic tracks.

After two films in four years, Cholodenko’s ratio unfortunately slowed. Following the release of Cavedweller in 2004, there followed a six year hiatus until The Kids Are All Right. The success of the latter however, both critically and commercially, will hopefully mean that there will be more prolific work to come from a director who has strived to soar out of pigeon holes by producing, particularly with her first feature, the highest of art.

High Art                                                      Laurel Canyon

18                                                                   18

101 mins                                                     103 mins

**** out of 5                                              ***1/2 out of 5

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