Monday, August 30, 2010

Strange Films I've Seen: NADJA

I'd stumbled across Michael Almereyda's '90s indie gem Nadja whilst planning out my LIST film features related to BAM's "Bela Lugosi's Dead, Vampires Live Forever" series. The venue began this ingeniously curated program at the beginning of August and Nadja was set for the 31st — and all I had to do was check that one gorgeous b&w promo photo and read the description (Pixelvision! 90s rock! David Lynch cameo!) to get hooked. Then the Chicago Review's summation: "Hal Hartley meets David Lynch", and well the fact it's like a redo of Dracula's Daughter (1936) set in the East Village and Brooklyn at twilight and, well... so why, really, have I not see this already?? So I did the only suitable thing, Netflix it ahead of its BAM screening.

(caution: just like my previous "Strange Films" entry, this one is spoiler-laden. Suffice it to say here: Nadja is a beauty, TOTALLY worth seeing at BAM, plus there's a Q&A w/ dir. Almereyda and editor David Leonard, moderated by New York magazine's film critic David Edelstein. Hell, I might see it again — it screens 7p at BAM on Tuesday the 31, but you knew that already since you read my LIST)

I was literally at Almereyda's mercy like two minutes into the film. It opens w/ the typically Lynchian black screen w/ simple, clean sans serif white titles, followed by a liquidy b&w flame (the entire film is shot in b&w), then a shot of anonymous Manhattan nighttime cityscape as scene from a taxi, and Nadja's (Elina Lowensohn) monologue begins:
"Nights / nights without sleep / long nights in which the brain lights up like a big city..."
Segueing straight into the guitar riffs of My Bloody Valentine's "Soon", the city lights smear and, after the bassline drops, they hit the distortion pedals and we're off.
This is one of the best film intros I've ever experienced. Maybe it's b/c "Soon" is my favorite MBV track (absolutely massive live), but that w/ Nadja's words and the night-scene, it all worked wonderfully. We meet Nadja, in some late-night cafe, riffing on Europe v. America (specifically New York) to a guy she picked up, about her rich dad, while she chainsmokes and looks stunning in a headband keeping her bob in place. Her cheekbones could cut glass. Cut to taxi (or back of some car), where Nadja and dude are making out, that is until her necking turns into chomping down on his neck, either sucking his blood or ripping his throat out b/c it's quite hard to tell here. This is the Pixelvision effect, a signature toy of Almereyda's, created via the PXL-2000 (the Fischer-Price camcorder), and enacting this smoky, pixellated effect not unlike surveillance cameras. I found it quite effective throughout, as it lends a creepy voyeuristic angle, either distancing us from the action or putting us much closer, pressed up against the glass but unable to proceed any further. We learn here (if you weren't hip to it already) that Nadja is indeed a vampire and dad is none other than the recently smote Dracula.

Next scene introduces I guess the "hero", a Ben Affleck predecessor named Jim (Martin Donovan) and his wife Lucy (the remarkably named, Warhol Superstar-ish Galaxy Craze), and she informs him that his uncle Van Helsing (Peter Fonda, classic!) was just arrested for murdering a man via stake to the heart. Any ideas who this Van Helsing is, or who he killed? Jim rushes off to spring his uncle, but not before reminding Lucy to "keep the bed warm", which sounds totally out of place b/c Lucy is probably (or was once probably, and not just b/c of the flannel) a lesbian, and Jim is quite possibly gay, again like Ben Affleck from Chasing Amy, gay. Anyway, Nadja and her leather-trousered boy-toy Renwick (at first I thought it was this was Nadja's twin brother — like the Dracula's Daughter thing goes, even though he speaks here w/ an Irish accent) at the morgue, speaking w/ a tousle-haired David Lynch (the morgue guard, naturally) for her father's body.

Elsewhere, Jim springs crazy uncle Van Helsing from the clink, this long-haired batty old guy very, very much like Christopher Lloyd circa Back to the Future II, and they catch up at another cafe. The whole while, Van Helsing, perennially sunglassed (his special vampire-seeking shades), discourses on his theories on Dracula and how he would kill for a drink right now, all the while making the waitress very very nervous. When I think about it, everyone in this film has long hair (even Jim, in a shaggy way) in that, proportionally anyway, the shortest hair is Lucy's, which sort of fits w/ the next scene: she's alone at some bar and picks up Nadja (!) after some confiding back and forth (Nadja is upset her brother — the twin — hates her, though she must visit him anyway; Lucy's brother killed himself at age 21). Right, this scene was immediately preceded by another soundtrack bonus: Portishead playing as Nadja floats towards that bar, wiping away tears, drawing a cigarette, cloaked in black. They relocate to Lucy's flat. The Pixelvision commences once again as the women photograph themselves, then make love.

Jim returns, possibly the next morning after a bender w/ the uncle, and finds Lucy listless and bleeding, zombie-like. So he's obviously concerned but then Van Helsing pulls up, announces that he's actually Jim's father and they can't bother w/ Lucy right now b/c Dracula's body is missing and the twins took it! (so Van Helsing assumes) Jim finds the polaroids of Nadja and Van Helsing deduces that Lucy's zombie mode is b/c she's under Nadja's spell so they have to locate her. And she's gone to Brooklyn to visit her ill twin brother Edgar, whose nurse Cassandra is also apparently his blond human lover. Nadja tricks Cassandra into moving Edgar back to her spacious Manhattan prewar building, where she feeds him her own blood on the sly while Renwick dopes Cassandra w/ some laced milk (but not before dissing her for not being on psychosomatic meds and why the hell won't she move from his favorite chair?? It's one of the best exchanges in the film) Van Helsing, Jim and Lucy show up, Nadja gets Lucy to attack Jim while Cassandra flees and Najda flees after her.

More Portishead. Slo-mo Nadja run/glide (like Anna Magnani in Mamma Roma, the night-walking scenes) w/ a slower-mo Lucy et al right behind her. Nadja corners Cassandra in an auto repair garage and seduces her, but then gets shot in the stomach by some random police officer. The wounded Nadja (w/ starry-eyed Cassandra in tow) flee back to Transylvania, the "good guys" (incl. Edgar now, apparently) follow suit. Choice line from Van Helsing on Nadja: "Cassandra's soul is in mortal danger. She'll suck her dry!! Blood is like...chewing gum, to these creatures..." Jim and Lucy fend off Renwick whilst Van Helsing and Edgar hammer a stake into Nadja's chest while she looks on, her huge eyes locked on her brother as he kills her (everything here, the fight w/ Renwick and the staking, except for Nadja's eyes, is under Pixelvision). Jim and Lucy talk about having a baby. Edgar and Cassandra get married. And we get a final Nadja monologue here, enlightening us that she infused her blood into Cassandra's body (we see her remove the IV after Nadja gets staked), so now she lives on inside Cassandra (as Cassandra? or a new Nadja?). This, w/ the shimmery sea-like sky, reminded me a bit of the blissed-out denouement to Being John Malkovich, and I mean that in a good way. Beautiful film, Nadja, lots of tongue-in-cheek dialogue but that's the artsy intent. It's great to look at and I found it incredibly engaging (and violent, when necessary). Only thing to have made it more over-the-top would be a Robert Smith cameo.