Friday September 1, 1995
In the title role of Michael Almereyda's "Nadja," an elegant, witty but also sometimes tedious spin on the legend of Dracula, Elina Lowensohn is a black-caped beauty with a bold Frida Kahlo face. A rich, restless denizen of Manhattan's night life, she admits that it's "hard not to think of everything as superficial."
She soon believes she has reason to hope that things will change, for this film's Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Fonda, dressed Ivy League-style but sporting long, wispy hair) announces that he has driven a stake through the heart of her father, Count Dracula himself. Longing for love and some meaning in her life, she unsurprisingly has a tough time escaping the family heritage.
This black-and-white film has a steel-engraving look as stunning as Nadja herself, but Almereyda has formidable cinematographer Jim DeNault alternate between 35mm and Pixelvision cameras. Production notes helpfully tell us that the blurred shot-through-a-honeycomb grid look created by Pixelvision is meant to transport us "into the hazy universe of the vampiric unconscious." The effect, however, is primarily distracting, which is also the case in trying to sort out the entangled relationships between the film's people.
Van Helsing wants his nephew (Martin Donovan) to help him destroy Nadja and her twin brother Edgar (Jared Harris), but Nadja has already seduced Donovan's wife (Galaxy Craze) and his half-sister (Suzy Amis) has fallen in love with Edgar. And this is just the beginning of the complications.
Although it's difficult not to try to sort out all this and much more, Almereyda probably means to make the larger point that everybody is connected to everybody else anyway and that we all have within ourselves the capacity to devour each other emotionally, like vampires. Almereyda attempts a large, philosophical appraisal of modern life and its ills and to set it off with frequent jabs of spiky, subtle dark humor and a lush sensuality. He by and large succeeds at this, but his film suffers from a malaise typical of fledgling filmmakers: a prolonged middle section that bogs down, inviting audience attention to wander before it regains momentum. In simply choosing to rework "Dracula," Almereyda has given himself the daunting task of trying to discover fresh meaning in the over-mined vampire genre; vampirism as a metaphor for AIDS, for example, is not new.
Almereyda, on the other hand, has a real knack in giving his cast the confidence to play close to the edge of spoofery, requiring them to reel off line after line of deliberately portentous dialogue while keeping straight faces, which allows for quite a few droll, dryly funny moments. Another strength is a vibrant contemporary score by Simon Fisher Turner, long an associate of the late Derek Jarman. Although "Nadja" proclaims Almereyda's distinctive witty sensibility and talent, it also suggests that he needs to aim higher--and that Dracula needs to be laid to rest, at least for awhile.
Nadja, 1995. MPAA-rated R: for some scenes of bizarre vampire sexuality and gore, and for some language. An October Films release. Writer-director Michael Almereyda. Producers Mary Sweeney, Amy Hobby. Executive producer David Lynch. Cinematographer Jim DeNault. Editor David Leonard. Costumes Prudence Moriarty. Music Simon Fisher Turner. Production designer Kurt Ossenfort. Running time: 1 hour, 32 minutes. Elina Lowensohn as Nadja. Peter Fonda as Dr. Van Helsing. Martin Donovan as Jim. Galaxy Craze as Lucy. Jared Harris as Edgar. Karl Geary as Renfield.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun