Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Nadja – review

Directed by: Michael Almereyda

First released: 1994

Contains spoilers

I got a mail from friend of the blog Simon Dyda, which mentioned that he had ordered Nadja but had noticed that it wasn’t on the blog. Nadja was in my collection, it was another example of a film I hadn’t dug out for review and so – thanks to Simon’s mail – I dug the film out and put it at the top of the review list.

Now Nadja is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. Post-modernistic, with surrealistic aspects and shot in black and white with, occasional, pixilation effects on the screen it is more arthouse than horror. It is also a remake of Dracula’s Daughter, capturing in its own way, the essence of the earlier film beautifully. Interestingly it also captures several of the vampire archetype’s directions.

We begin with Nadja (Elina Löwensohn) and she is in a bar talking to a man (Nic Ratner), she talks of the difference between Europe and America – especially New York. She suggests that there is no food in Europe after 10PM – a comment on night life and vampiric nutrition more than restaurants! She talks of her family, of old money gained through the suffering of the common person and, in this way, we see one of the vampiric archetype’s – the bourgeois. In this we also gather that Nadja wishes to change her life. We note here that the dialogue is very stagy. This is an issue through the film but, the actors are so good and the delivery so perfect that it becomes a positive rather than a negative.

Nadja and the man go off together. She attacks him but the scene is broken up with pixilation effects. This can be annoying for some viewers but it served more than one function. The effects take place when vampiric activity occurs – be it mojo or an attack. It could be seen to be a visual representation of the vampire’s power. It also covers up these moments in a way that any lack of budget would not be seen within the physical effects and I can’t believe that was coincidence. Most of all Almereyda uses the effect, gained by using a Fisher-Price PixelVision camera, in several of his works and so it is somewhat of a trademark. At the end of the feeding Nadja suddenly looks up and declares that her father is dead.

Jim (Martin Donovan) is sparring in a boxing ring when his wife Lucy (Galaxy Craze) comes in and distracts him – leading to him being punched out. The punch causes his vision to swirl and his nose to bleed. Lucy had come to tell him that his uncle Van Helsing (Peter Fonda) has been arrested for murder – he stuck a stake into a man’s chest, into his heart. It is clear that Lucy does not like Van Helsing. We see Nadja and another, later revealed to be Renfield (Karl Geary), enter a morgue to take the body of Dracula. This is reminiscent of the beginning of Dracula’s Daughter. It should be noted that the morgue attendant is David Lynch in cameo. Lynch actually produced Nadja.

Jim gets his Uncle from the police station and they end up at a coffee shop. Van Helsing talks about needing to cut off the head and burn the body (little does he know that this is what Nadja has done, off screen). He says that Dracula was tired of his existence, that he didn’t really put up a fight. Later we will hear from Van Helsing about the countless children Dracula fathered, all raving idiots who are present in the crowds of all major cities. However there were two, twins, born of a woman he loved – who died in childbirth. Dracula is portrayed by several actors. Dracula young is Jeff Winner, whilst Fonda plays Dracula when a facial shot is not called for. The full face shot we get is Bela Lugosi – actually from the film White Zombie. Why not from Dracula? Possibly because, in Dracula’s Daughter, Lugosi did not reprise the role of the dead Count but a dummy was used instead… unlikely… more likely because White Zombie is public domain.

Meanwhile Lucy has gone to a bar. Nadja is in there also and it is Lucy that approaches her. Nadja talks of being upset, she is going to see her brother, Edgar (Jared Harris), whom, she claims, hates her. Lucy had a brother, it transpires, who committed suicide at twenty one. Nadja speaks of the pain of fleeting joy – and this captures the essence of the vampire as outsider, of the loner unable to connect properly. Lucy and Nadja end up at Lucy’s apartment. She has a Dracula toy (Nadja reacts badly to it, is it a reaction to her father or a commentary on the commercialisation of the vampire? probably both, though the commercialisation commentary continues later when, on arriving in the wilds of Transylvania, the first thing they see is a child wearing Mickey Mouse ears). The women end up as lovers.

When Jim gets back to the flat he finds Lucy in the corner. She is ill; she bleeds from the nose, haemorrhages from her pubic area and just wants to sleep. She sees Nadja in a mirror, when she is not there, and this reminds the viewer of the Hunger. When the night comes she goes to work almost zombie like. Van Helsing appears at the apartment to tell Jim that the body has gone and reveals that he is not actually Jim’s uncle but his father. Jim finds Polaroids taken of Nadja, he wonders who this woman is, Van Helsing notices that she is captured on film but not in the mirror on film. The race is on to save Lucy.

I don’t want to go further into this but I do need to mention that Edgar is ill – representing vampirism as a disease or a plague. His nurse, (with whom a mutual love has developed), is Cassandra (Suzy Amis). Later we hear that she is Van Helsing’s niece (and Jim’s half sister). Edgar wishes to die and at one point talks of staking his sister also.

Lore wise we hear that they are shapeshifters, they are fast and strong (Lucy is able to toss Jim across a bar). They see in the dark, can dominate weaker minds and can pass through solid objects. Acting wise all the cast are excellent but special mention to Karl Geary who makes the most laid back Renfield in movies, I think, and to Peter Fonda whose portrayal of Van Helsing – as a long haired, mad old coot, it has to be said – is a powerhouse performance.

Does it work? Yes but… for all its strengths, beautiful, moody photography, great acting and multi-layered narrative, the film is at heart an arthouse film. This is always going to be off putting to some and makes the film more a mood piece generally. The more action level sequences do not necessarily work as well as they should. But these are minor quibbles in a film that reveals something new to the viewer with each watch. 8 out of 10.

The imdb page is here.


Anonymous said...

Poetry is often aspired to through film but rarely achieved. This film, in my view comes very close to reaching the highest of levels. Not quite to the level of Lynch (hardly surprising given his presence here) or to that achieved by Mallick, Tarkovsky or Eisenstein, but laudable all the same. So much film is mere pulp. This is much more than that... this is film as art.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Hi Crabstix, I can't disagree with your analysis

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review, I'm looking forward to seeing it.

Taliesin_ttlg said...

No prob Simon - let us know hat youn think