For his film Nadja, writer/director Michael Almereyda borrows names and even minor story-elements from Bram Stoker, but uses them to create a highly peculiar film. I was not really expecting something so odd, but since the opening titles thankfully start with the information (or warning) “David Lynch presents”, I was able to brace myself and to adjust my expectations. Lynch is the film’s executive producer, and there is definitely a Lynchian vibe running through the entire film.
The film opens with Nadja, a young woman, talking to a man about her life and her father. We soon learn that she is a vampire – a daughter of Dracula, in fact. Meanwhile, a young couple (Jim and Lucy) whose relationship seems to have lost its sheen and its romance, has to deal with the fact that the Jim’s highly eccentric uncle is causing trouble again. This time, he seems to have been arrested for murder, having driven a wooden stake through somebody’s heart. As can be expected, these two strands of narrative get intertwined sooner rather than later. As Nadja seems determined to re-model her life she soon gets into conflict with various other people. Because she is not really interested in their wishes or opinions. She insists that they play the roles she wants them to play.
As I said, the film feels somewhat Lynchian. Nothing here seems real in the first place. And when vampires are involved, their powers or their aura seem to negate the physical laws of time and space.
It is a black & white film with an occasionally blurry picture. Almereyda even employs the use of a Fisher Price PixelVision camera, something he seems to have done in more than one film. And everything seems to fall into place to support the film’s surreal feel. Jim Denault (DP), David Leonard (editor), and Simon Fisher Turner (score) all work together to serve Almereyda’s vision.
The deliberately unnatural acting and the film’s odd dialogue also add to this surreal tone. Several characters deliver long mock-philosophical monologues – mostly Nadja, but also Jim, Lucy, and others. Maybe the intention was different 24 years ago, but to me it seems that these monologues – while certainly revealing something about the characters and their problems/desires – are half tongue-in-cheek, possibly making fun of older arthouse films.
And there is a lot of hidden humour (mostly deadpan) in this film anyway. It is as if the film seems determined to not take itself too seriously. The humour is most often created by Jim’s mad uncle, who goes by the name Van Helsing, by the way. But Nadja’s odd and almost childish complaints also add to the mix. One shining example is a monologue in which she complains that her father made her eat too much butter on her bread, like it was the most traumatising experience – and during that monologue her manservant is accompanying her on a harp that just happens to stand there. Also, the film goes above and beyond the usual practice when “hanging a lantern“ on the oddities and plot contrivances of its own story. The weirdly “off” atmosphere that is created by all these elements is not unlike the atmosphere in Twin Peaks.
Not all of that comedy works. The elements that do not work often feel like adlibs, or spur-of-the-moment writing decisions, which stand out and have no connection to other elements of the film. One example is the moment in which someone uses Dracula’s full name, revealing that “Ceaucescu” is apparently one of Dracula’s middle names.
The small cast is doing a very fine job, which cannot have been easy in this unusual film. Nadja is played by Elina Löwensohn (The Widsom of Crocodiles), and Van Helsing by Peter Fonda. Jim and Lucy are played by Martin Donovan and Galaxy Craze. There are additional major roles for Suzy Amis and a young Jared Harris. Karl Geary, who plays Nadja’s manservant Renfield, has the misfortune of being given an oddly unsatisfying role, as his character mostly serves as a pair of ears to be talked at by Nadja.
The very few tiny roles in this film include a brief cameo by David Lynch as a guard at a morgue.
This film is never boring, but it is oddly paced and the monologues can be tiresome. It is certainly not a film for everybody, but it is not, strictly speaking, a “difficult” art film, because it refuses to take itself seriously.
Whatever this is, and however you feel about it, there is no denying the fact that Nadja is a very interesting approach to vampires – and to filmmaking. The film worked quite nicely for me, and so I would rate it at 6.5 out of 10.