Here is a true oddity – imperfect and incoherent in many respects but nonetheless brave, moody and captivating.
Nadja begins as if it were a contemporary horror film made by Hal Hartley, complete with Hartley regulars (Elina Löwensohn, Martin Donovan) and a series of droll comparisons between modern love and ancient vampirism.
We meet the enigmatic Nadja (Löwensohn) in a New York bar, after her voice-over has droned about the "long nights, when your brain lights up like a big city". As Nadja beds down for a bit of casual bloodsucking with a stranger, her vampire brother Edgar (Jared Harris) is tormented by flashes of her deed – what he calls their "psychic faxes".
The film then trawls through a series of colourful incidents involving lesbianism, menstruation, various dysfunctional relationships and a rather nutty vampire hunter classically named Dr Van Helsing (played by the American cinema's eternal hippie, Peter Fonda). It is easy, well into this plot, to regard the presence of the supernatural as essentially a metaphor, a mere device that allows a shambling Hartleyesque reflection on contemporary mores.
As the comedy of manners begins to ebb, however, other more serious themes and motifs come into focus, elements that are familiar from writer-director Michael Almereyda's previous, little known work (Twister , Another Girl, Another Planet ). What Nadja describes as the "pain of fleeting joy" afflicts all the characters, whether struggling with love, family ties, mysterious sexual energies, or the eternal enigmas of life, death and personal identity.
Ultimately it is an almost grandiloquent film, with large, metaphysical aspirations. In striking, expressionistic, black and white compositions, Almereyda and cinematographer Jim Denault pay homage to the severe masterpieces of silent cinema, such as Dreyer's uncanny Vampyr (1932). But, equally, their style honours the thousand and one memorable B-grade horror flicks that have entered the collective unconscious, wayward marvels including Edgar Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934).
In fact it is hard to remember another film that crosses low and high culture, the popular and the avant-garde, as fluently and freely as this one. Nadja is stuffed with ripe cinematic and literary references to everything from Bela Lugosi and André Breton to Sam Shepard and Raúl Ruiz. Almereyda stresses the second degree nature of the material – the fact that it is an oft-told movie tale – by placing the actors in front of obviously back-projected screens, and filming an old horror classic off a television set.
Nadja loses a lot of its blood by the end. Almereyda is a little over-fond of inserting footage shot on his dinky Pixelvision toy camera (which made the ultra-low-budget Another Girl, Another Planet possible); its murky, hallucinatory effect soon grows tiresome, and it makes the plot at times rather hard to follow, or even properly see.
Almereyda and his producers (including David Lynch) took the film back for some re-shooting after its initial screenings, and probably also (judging by the jagged end credits) rejigged the soundtrack to include a few dreamy rock songs alongside Simon Fisher Turner's atmospheric score. It is not hard to see why: for all its sensational and lurid elements, the story never exactly becomes exciting in a conventionally horrific way.
Yet, ultimately, the film's commercial limitation is also its greatest artistic asset. Nadja has a slow, haunting, oceanic rhythm that lends an earnestness to its B movie pulp poetry, and concentrates its tangled emotional textures. It is a rare, risky cinema experience not easily forgotten.
© Adrian Martin May 1996