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A decade ago, reviewers and audiences applauded Desert Hearts, Parting Glances, and other mediocre movies simply because they dared to address gay themes. Today, with homosexual characters routinely turning up in mainstream features (As Good as It Gets, The Full Monty, L.A. Confidential) and a flourishing international gay and lesbian cinema, filmmakers no longer win automatic approval for depicting same-sex relationships. Writers and directors are now forced to dig deeper—a challenge that has inspired some uncommonly imaginative and intelligent movies. So far this year, we’ve had Lilies and The Hanging Garden, first-rate efforts by Canadian filmmakers, and this week we have two gay-oriented American indies of considerable merit by directors making their feature debuts.

High Art is a muted but intense chamber piece written and directed by Lisa Cholodenko. Although her screenplay involves two lesbian relationships, these are not the film’s primary focus but elements of a narrative that explores the intellectual, emotional, and erotic dimensions of its characters.

Professionally and personally, 24-year-old Syd (Radha Mitchell) feels blocked. She’s been named assistant editor of Frame, a trendy Manhattan art-photography magazine, but her duties largely consist of running errands for power-hungry, self-important superiors. At home, James (Gabriel Mann), her uptight, live-in boyfriend, shows little compassion for her thwarted ambitions.

Venturing upstairs in her apartment building to find the source of a leak, Syd meets Lucy Berliner (Ally Sheedy), a once-famous 30-ish photographer. Uneasy about the commercial exploitation of her highly personal images and uncomfortable with celebrity, a decade earlier Lucy defaulted on her professional obligations and escaped to Europe. Home again and largely forgotten, she now lives with her heroin-addled German girlfriend Greta (Patricia Clarkson), a former actress in Fassbinder movies. Round the clock, the pair’s dark apartment teems with stoned hangers-on languishing in perpetual midnight.

Enterprising Syd befriends Lucy and proposes that she make a comeback in the pages of Frame, a project that will also boost Syd’s status at the magazine. This collaboration fosters an unexpected but passionate emotional and physical intimacy that forces both women to re-examine their priorities and desires.

Cholodenko’s moody, character-driven film showcases two extraordinary performances. No longer the well-scrubbed adolescent of The Breakfast Club and St. Elmo’s Fire, Sheedy has become a magnetic, resourceful actress, a slim, angular adult capable of mercurial mood shifts. Her work is matched, and sometimes exceeded, by sensitive, soft-featured Mitchell’s contributions. It’s hard to think of another performer who could equal Mitchell’s solemn fury when Syd turns on jealous James, or her tremulousness the first time she and Lucy make love. The secondary players are less impressive. Clarkson’s pasty-faced, belladonna-voiced Greta smacks too much of a campy, drag-show Dietrich, and Tammy Grimes seems to have prepared the accent for her two scenes as Lucy’s worldly Jewish mother by watching Bela Lugosi movies. As James, Mann is unmemorably competent; Anh Duong and David Thornton are appropriately odious as Syd’s pretentious, opportunistic Frame bosses.

Despite the rib-nudging titular pun, High Art’s stillness (half-whispered dialogue, Shudder To Think’s ambient score) and narcotic rhythms cast a mesmeric spell. Cholodenko sensitively charts the multileveled interactions of two women discovering in each other possibilities denied by the partners and conditions that restrain them. The lovemaking sequences—Lucy and Greta, Syd and James, Lucy and Syd—manage to be intensely erotic because they focus on the characters’ feelings rather than their physical responses. (Significantly, no thundering orgasms occur.) It is Cholodenko’s particular triumph that nearly every audience member will see herself or himself in one of the film’s sexual encounters. This achievement makes High Art’s melodramatic ending seem especially unsatisfying. After opening so many windows, the filmmaker opts for an easy contrivance, slamming a door in our faces.

The Opposite of Sex is a sauerkraut comedy with a marzipan heart. In his directorial debut, screenwriter Don Roos (Love Field, Single White Female) unleashes some of the nastiest, most reprehensible characters in recent memory, only to reward them at the end for surviving one another’s barbs and machinations.

Christina Ricci stars as Dedee Truitt, the film’s narrator and catalyst. Following her lecherous stepfather’s funeral, 16-year-old Dedee, who makes Lolita look like Pippi Longstocking, cuts out

of Tennessee, leaving behind her

trailer-trash mother and one-testicled boyfriend. Arriving in Indiana, she invades the home of her gay half-brother Bill (Martin Donovan), an earnest schoolteacher who has lost his lover to AIDS and begun a liaison with Matt (Ivan Sergei), a dim, muscular hunk 10 years his junior. Armed with a teeny bikini and suntan oil, Dedee effortlessly seduces Matt and soon claims to be pregnant with his child. Bill feels hurt and betrayed—emotions that intensify when Dedee and Matt run off to Los Angeles with $10,000 of his money and his lover’s ashes.

Grungy Jason (Johnny Galecki), Bill’s ex-student and, apparently, Matt’s secret boyfriend, freaks out when he hears that Matt has split and vindictively accuses Bill of molesting him four years earlier. Leaving town to avoid scandal, Bill, accompanied by his late lover’s spinsterish sister Lucia (Lisa Kudrow), also heads for L.A., where, among other things, another possible father of Dedee’s child presents himself, Lucia is wooed and impregnated by a lovestruck sheriff (Lyle Lovett), Matt’s sexual orientation again somersaults, and at least one killing occurs.

Roos’ most impudent directorial device is the resurrection of spoken narration, long dismissed as a lame post-production strategy to stitch together otherwise uncuttable footage. Dedee’s deadpan commentary frequently plays to conventional, sentimental audience expectations, then mocks viewers for believing her. She sets the film’s caustic tone by announcing “I don’t have a heart of gold, and I don’t grow one later on. But relax. There are lots of nicer people coming on. We call them losers.” She’s filled with politically incorrect insights about homosexuality, notably that “gays love houses” and “Basically, you’re blowing your father.” When we’re shown a gun, she offers a Chekhovian reminder: “Remember this in the plot. It comes up later.” Following a gruesome childbirth scene, Dedee’s offscreen voice taunts, “Did you think I’d end up dead? No way I’d die. Come on—I’m the fucking narrator. Keep up, guys!”

Ricci, who has inherited Drew Barrymore’s tough-teen-tart roles, heads a lively cast. Donovan endures a series of indignities with equanimity, and Sergei’s rugged looks and sly wit add texture to a male-bimbo stereotype. Kudrow wins acting honors in a performance that is almost too painful to watch. Lucia is the quintessential killjoy, a thin-lipped, tight-assed, foul-minded (and -mouthed) spoiler of everyone’s pleasure, especially her own. She insists on pursuing Bill, a man she knows she can’t have, and, in frustration, she spits sour grapes at the world. Old-maidishly dressed and coiffed, Kudrow’s fag hag from hell cuts close to the bone, a tragicomic portrait of bitterness that, once observed, isn’t easy to forget.

The Opposite of Sex lacks the courage of its nihilistic convictions. In the closing scenes, Roos cravenly passes out happy endings to characters who hitherto have botched all opportunities for felicity. Even hard-as-nails Dedee, still disenchantedly prattling that sex inevitably leads to dire consequences (kids, disease, relationships), appears poised to consider joining the love parade. Although, like High Art, it falters at the finish line, The Opposite of Sex offers a gratifyingly tangy alternative to summer’s bland comic confections.CP