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‘Nadja’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 22, 1995

Early on in "Nadja," Michael Almereyda's insanely brilliant fantasia on the Dracula legend, the protagonist confesses over drinks with a stranger that she has no job, no interests, no skills. "I'm not really good for much of anything," Nadja asserts, pausing to drag deeply on her cigarette. "I want to change my life."

Typical singles-bar talk, but Nadja (played with feline elegance by Elina Lowensohn) is not like most girls you meet at happy hour. With her hair pulled back to accentuate her high, sculpted forehead and black, hypnotic eyes, Nadja isn't cruising the bars looking for love. Nadja is a vampire.

The daughter of Count Dracula and a peasant woman he fell in love with by "the shores of the Black Sea," she prowls the nightspots of New York City looking like a Eurotrash Garbo. But Nadja is burned out on the club scene; she's ready to move beyond the night to more simple, normal things—sunlight, a lake, a dog.

How, exactly, the undead diva intends to achieve this metamorphosis is not clear. Actually, a good portion of the film's story is confusing; plotting is obviously not Almereyda's strong point. Still, this idiosyncratically talented writer-director ("Twister," "Another Girl Another Planet") manages to keep a lot of elements in equilibrium. Almereyda uses New York clubs as the backdrop for this vampire saga—a stroke of genius— much the way Jean Cocteau did when, in "Orphee," he set the myth of Orpheus among a group of squabbling Left Bank poets—as a means of giving a classic story a sharp, contemporary edge.

Almereyda shares some of Cocteau's sense of film as a magic plaything. Shot in hallucinatory black-and-white by Jim Denault—who also works the Pixelvision camera used in some sequences—the film has an atmosphere that fluctuates between languid and hysterical. Visually, it's a thrilling movie, gorgeously, hypnotically textured. Images fly in from all over—a snippet of Bela Lugosi's Rorschach eyebrows, a few frames of a ravishing peasant girl, a grainy long shot of a skulking, caped figure—as if Almereyda had found a way of patching directly into the collective pop id.

Somehow through all this, the picture's effects remain appealingly low-key. For all its stylishness, it never becomes a mere exercise in style. Almereyda has a great sense of postmodern comic inflection; he knows exactly the precise mixture of irony and conviction needed to maintain the film's droll sense of the absurd. And yet, even when he's riffing on vampire lore and wildly throwing together incongruous elements, he keeps us engaged by his muddled story.

The cast of "Nadja" is a sort of A-list of independent filmmaking superstars. Executive producer David Lynch makes a brief but memorably pathological appearance as a morgue attendant. Peter Fonda, wired, with a long gray-streaked ponytail down his back, plays Dr. Van Helsing, the intrepid vampire killer. Galaxy Craze makes an appealing zombie as Lucy, the depressed girlfriend of Van Helsing's nephew, who is played by a baffled-looking Martin Donovan.

Not everyone stands out. As Cassandra, Suzy Amis is mostly wasted, and Jared Harris, who plays Nadja's dying twin brother, Edgar, looks as if he's dosed on cough medicine. Still, in Lowensohn, Almereyda has found an actress in perfect sync with his haywire vision.

Nadja is rated R.

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