Nadja

Film review by Thomas M. Sipos

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Nadja  (1994 exec prod: David Lynch; dir/scp: Michael Almereyda; cast: Elina Lvwensohn, Karl Geary, Peter Fonda, Martin Donovan, Galaxy Craze, David Lynch, Suzy Amis, Jared Harris)

 

 

 

Nadja is a difficult film to review, if reviews are meant to guide others, partly because others' reactions will vary wildly. Cinephiles and Goths may regard Nadja as a profound masterpiece, whereas Fangorians might think it turgid crud.

A black & white vampire film, Nadja falls into that small but intriguing category: the horror art film (e.g., Blood and Roses, Spirits of the Dead, The Company of Wolves, Gothic). Its cast includes such Hal Hartley alums as Rumanian-born Elina Lvwensohn (Flirt, Amateur, Basquiat, Schindler's List) and Martin Donovan (Flirt, Amateur, The Opposite of Sex), and is executive produced by David Lynch (who cameos as a morgue attendant).

Nadja's plot is a lethargic (some would say moody) retelling of the Dracula tale in contemporary Manhattan. Lvwensohn stars as Nadja Dracul, Dracula's daughter. Early in the film, Nadja senses Van Helsing destroy Dracula, both roles played by a long-haired but balding Peter Fonda. In effect, Fonda "kills himself." I don't know what this is meant to symbolize, if anything, but throughout most of the film Fonda plays Van Helsing, as Dracula is now truly dead (except in flashbacks).

And there are flashbacks aplenty. Every film school/art house gimmick is on display. The black & white photography is variously beautiful, rich, stark, stunning, moody, sumptuous, smoky, blurry -- everything an Anne Rice fan on acid could desire. Images are framed from every conceivable angle. Rainwater drips on the camera lens. Some scenes are shot with a toy Pixelvision video camera. (Yes, there are slow motion shots.)

The soundtrack features diverse musical styles and discordant nondiegetic noises, sometimes fading in and out, sometimes cutting in and out with jarring abruptness. The black & white photography, discordant noises, and languid pace all evoke David Lynch's Eraserhead. (Yes, there are voiceovers.)

 

 

Lvwensohn begins one voiceover amid sound effects while in her castle. We cut to events outside, and although her voiceover continues seamlessly, all else is silenced. Moments later, the sound effects fade back up. No real reason for this audio gimmickry, but some viewers may think it eerie. Some may even regard it profound.

If it sounds like I'm reviewing form rather than content, it's because Nadja is about style rather than substance. This film is to be watched rather than understood. Its story is as disjointed as its editing. (Yes, there are jump cuts.)

Characters flitter about aimlessly; only Van Helsing is consistently driven. Van Helsing destroys Dracula, then wants to destroy Nadja. He enlists Jim (Martin Donovan), who's sort of married to the boyish Lucy (Galaxy Craze), who is seduced by Nadja. (Lucy, as in Stoker's Dracula -- get it?) There's also a Renfield (Karl Geary), Nadja's "slave." Nadja also wants to nurse her non-vampire brother with blood plasma. Instead, Nadja seduces his lover/nurse Cassandra (Suzy Amis, of Titanic). (Yes, there are lesbian vampire sex scenes.)

Nadja is burdened with flashbacks and jump cuts and torpid pacing and vapid dialogue, obfuscating a thin story. Many will be too bored to prune away all the pretty padding and make an effort to follow the story. Nonsense lines abound, often spoken in a monotone, Hal Hartley style.  Jim stares blankly at Lucy while he expounds his love for her to Van Helsing. Lucy responds: "Tuesday I ate two diet cokes and a bit of pizza. Today I had some M&Ms." She's under Nadja's spell, but she's not all that different for it.  Her conversations with Jim are both fatalistic and trite. (Yes, there's enough fatalism and pessimism and gloom in this film to delight a whole mausoleum-ful of Goths.)

The story ends in Nadja's Transylvanian castle, which looks like an abandoned New Jersey tenement; the walls are brick rather than large cut stone. That's okay, it's an old low-budget trick. And the tracking shot of a Rumanian map is a stylishly nostalgic manner in which to depict the characters' travels. Goths especially will love the darkly draped bed Nadja shares with Cassandra.

There is a "surprise twist" ending, but I saw it coming. So should anyone who is familiar with Roger Vadim's Blood and Roses (a retelling of Carmilla, and a far better film). Since Nadja features a female vampire, one may argue that it too is informed by Carmilla rather than Dracula, but Nadja's character names are lifted from Stoker's novel, not Le Fanu's.

 

 

 

There are some trendy modern themes. Nadja laments her dysfunctional family. Seems Dracula was a lousy dad. That, and the gender-bender lesbian sex, the long-haired puffy-shirted men, the vapid philosophizing that sounds profound if you don't think about it, and a film textbook's worth of cinematic stylistics, makes for a film that many an Anne Rice fan could stare at for endless hours, imagining that they were watching some insightful statement on transcendent love, or whatever. Others will be screaming: "Get on with it!"

Nadja's story could easily have been compressed into a half hour short, resulting in a quicker pace without losing any substance. Its lavish stylistics are impressive, but its slight story, silly dialogue, lack of philosophical insight, and lethargic pace are a drag on the film. Nadja will enthrall some, bore others. I presume you, dear reader, know which camp you're likely to fall into.

Review copyright by Thomas M. Sipos

 

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