May 15, 2011

Nadja (Dir. Michael Almereyda. 1994)

Note:  If Nadia appears in italics it’s the film I’m referring to, any other instance is the titular character.

Vampires used to be scary, monstrous and dangerous predators.  Then Hollywood made them sexy and enchanting, darkly seductive but still dangerous.
Lately they’ve been sparkly and twee.  Occasionally they are arthouse.  Tony Scott’s wonderfully dreamy The Hunger (1983) springs instantly to mind.  Nadja is arthouse, yet it’s a house not in the same zip code as Scott’s.  It was written and directed by Michael Almereyda back in 1994.  I know it’s not current, I rarely do current.  I have to confess to having never viewed an Almereyda film before so I don’t know if this is typical of his style or not.
It’s a style that left me with contradictory feelings.

The film shifts through various locations in its 93 minute running time.  Initially set in Manhattan and Brooklyn, the cities teem with a sense of hurried nightlife.  
In contrast to the animated city, the characters are drifting, distant, dreamlike and drugged as they move through life or un-life.  Even the married couple, who one supposes the viewers are meant to more readily identify with, are living in a disconnected, self-indulgent, bordering on clinical depression, cloudy haze.  It’s damn depressing.  Every person in the film is living in a self-created fictional reality.
I wouldn’t want any of them at my house for tea and cake.

The characters have names that most viewers will be familiar with as they are taken from Bram Stoker’s original.
Van Helsing.  Lucy.  Renfield.  Count Dracula.  In many ways it’s a modern retelling of the same story, yet they aren’t as alluring as they should be and all have an unlikable dysfunctional existentialism that puts them at odds with their environment.  Vampires are supposed to be ill-fitting in their milieu but usually they sit atop it, not buried underneath its filth.  They are usually isolated from it by self-imposed alienation not their own shortcomings.
Clearly the film has something new to say by taking this stance but does it present it effectively is the burning question.

Our first real insight into Nadja (Elina Löwensohn) comes near the beginning of the film; we play voyeur as she seems to chat candidly with someone.  It’s an interesting scene, putting the viewer instantly in mind of Interview with the Vampire, which coincidently Neil Jordan released as a film that same year.  We listen furtively as the other person feigns interest in what Nadja has to say.  “I want to simplify my life, even on a superficial level,” she tells him.
And that is essentially what the film is about.  Nadja is beautiful on the surface but hopelessly lost inside.  Her life is complicated, but much of the complicated nature is a result of her own neuroses.  Superficial is in her blood (no pun intended).  The consciousness inside her wants escape from the dark clutches and the madness that controls her.
She longs to be free of the insanity and the dysfunctional family she is a part of, and yet she is forever bound to them by her condition.
The film can be seen as reflective of that, it too is fighting with itself.  Visually and thematically it is great but the pacing and the script are terrible.

As the film progresses it repeatedly goes back to Nadja telling her story to anyone that will listen; she craves an audience that she can use to help define her.  Nadja is playing a role.  She even wears the long dark ‘look at me, I’m a vamp’ cape when out walking.   

The brief scene with David Lynch was interesting.  It seemed to be homage to the man himself.  He is sat at a desk with a paper coffee cup, it’s dreamlike, it has a similar ambient industrial sound that he and Angelo Badalamenti are known for and it utilises a slow zooming camera reactionary shot.  It’s a shame it’s only 42 seconds long. 

The most effective element of the film was Jim Denault's seductively low key black and white cinematography.  For most of the film it resembles a beautifully constructed painted canvas from a palette of cold light and velvet dark; shadows fall upon walls and give pathos to faces wonderfully.  It gives them a depth and an intensity that is reminiscent of the classic horror films from which Nadja draws much of its story inspiration.

Very occasionally it reminded me of old Bela Lugosi films, with the symbolical climbing of the stairs from a fixed camera position, and the eyes looming omnisciently over the action in a cheap double exposure effect.  Those moments were fantastic.  The director even includes a scene of Lugosi from White Zombie (Victor Halperin, 1932).  However, these moments are few; more of them would have been a welcome addition.

Unfortunately, Denault occasionally sets aside his beautiful 35mm film stock with its dramatic lighting in favour of what appears to be a child’s toy camera with a horrible pixellated image.  As the film unfolds you should come to understand why he chose such a stylistic approach but personally I found it irritating, almost hateful.  There were a dozen other ways he could have achieved the same result without making it look so amateurish.

I watched the BBC adaptation of Gormenghast (Andy Wilson, 2000) directly before Nadja, and while the two productions have absolutely nothing in common with each other, the former served to highlight the poor casting of the latter.  Gormenghast was perfect casting, flawless, faultless, whereas Nadja was just plain terrible.  Nadja herself was well cast, and Elina Löwensohn photographs beautifully in black and white but Renfield, Van Helsing, and the rest of the ensemble were not well suited.

Poor Peter Fonda gets some of the worst dialogue in the film.  He plays the Van Helsing character and he does his best with the material but at times he looks embarrassed to be there.   “Blood is like chewing gum to these creatures!” he says.  I’ve always believed that chewing gum is not supposed to be swallowed.  It’s what we use in place of our real craving and then spat out when no longer needed.  And if that doesn’t make you cringe there is always the “...psychic fax.”  It’s remarkable how Jared Harris manages to keep his dignity as he describes it, and yet he does, only just.  Peter Fonda was spared that one.

I have to admit that 50 minutes into the feature my attention began to drift and I found myself wondering what I was going to make for lunch.  I tried to picture the contents of my fridge the last time I had peeked into it.
And that's when the Portishead moment drew me back into the film.  It was the highlight of the whole film for me and it gelled beautifully.  The music of Portishead is used twice, the second instance accompanies Nadja as she walks the streets in her vamp cape.  It's an avant-garde, sombre and creepy scene that would have sat beautifully in a French New wave film, if they had dabbled in such things.
It was ethereal, dreamy, creepy, pressing, and ultimately fantastic.

In conclusion, the psychology of Nadja is much more interesting than the film itself but is underdeveloped and left hanging in the air, even at the films end.  It does make pains to reference that first insight, “I want to simplify my life, even on a superficial level,” but the symmetry is unbalanced.  It tries to be multi-faceted and deeply spiritual but I really don’t think it achieves either of those.
It tries to add depth by adding interwoven relationships but it’s handled so clumsily that I was left not caring at all.
Nadja can be seen as a study of our post-modern world and of the need of the individual to transcend it, or it can be seen as an avant-garde vampire film with some really shitty dialogue.  And for me that’s the crux of the problem I had with the film.  Is it deep, or do we project deepness upon it?  Is it clever or is it empty?  I hate that uncertainty.
I love ambiguity but uncertainty is a different kettle of fish.
I wholly admit that maybe I missed the point entirely but something inside me tells me there was no clear point to begin with.  It’s open to interpretation, so make of that what you will.

* 1/2 out of 5