Vampires stalk the netherworld of the downtown New York scene in “Nadja,” a lovely idea for a film that’s been beautifully executed but slips too far off its narrative tracks to get where it wants to go. Stunningly lensed in a mixture of black-and-white 35mm and Pixelvision and featuring one of the sexiest female vampires ever to bare her teeth onscreen, Michael Almereyda’s low-budgeter will develop a certain critical and cult following, but isn’t quite exotic, bold or exciting enough to edge from the commercial shadows into B.O. daylight.
Thoughtful and humorous pic gets off to a rousing start, as the darkly mysterious, extravagantly beautiful Nadja (Elina Lowensohn) picks up a guy in a bar with some disarmingly direct talk, and later feasts upon him. A wealthy Romanian, Nadja has just lost her father (Transylvania’s most illustrious citizen) and, rather than carry on his bloody legacy for countless more centuries, she is wearily determined to set a new course for her life.
Nadja next meets young Lucy (Galaxy Craze), whom she seduces in a tantalizing scene and with whom she unexpectedly falls in love. Lucy, it turns out, is married to Jim (Martin Donovan), whose uncle, Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Fonda), has killed Nadja’s father and is now after the alluring young woman and her twin brother, Edgar (Jared Harris), who is in the care of private nurse Cassandra (Suzy Amis).
After creating such promise through the intriguing setup of stunning twin vampires in trendy, nocturnal Gotham, it’s disappointing that Almereyda develops narrative butterfingers, letting the storyline become too diffuse and cutting among too many principal characters. Having established Nadja as the main focus of interest, tale splinters off to follow too many tangents and less intriguing figures in a half-baked attempt to paint a portrait of a dysfunctional vampire family, until Nadja ultimately reassumes center stage with a fateful decision that provides a distinctive and satisfying denouement.
Despite the dramatic problems, pic maintains a certain hold throughout due to the peculiar atmosphere, lovely style and flavorsome dialogue, which often hits weirdly campy, facetious notes. In his last film, “Another Girl, Another Planet, ” Almereyda pioneered the use of the toy Pixelvision video camera, and he has reprised its use here in scenes that relate to the vampire state of mind; blowing these images up to 35mm makes for grainy, impressionistic glimpses that contrast vividly with the beautiful sheen of lenser Jim Denault’s coverage of the main action. Technical work overall, notably the sound design, as well as the diverse score, is fancy and impressive.
Tone is set by the commanding performance of Lowensohn, previously seen in “Another Girl” as well as several Hal Hartley films. Physically imposing, sometimes garbed in a cape and utterly self-possessed, she’s the definitive modern vampire, and it’s too bad the script wasn’t shaped to use her more powerfully.
Fonda brings a manic humor to his role of the vampire killer, while other thesps turn in more straightforward jobs. Exec producer David Lynch pops in briefly as a security guard at a New York morgue.