Nadja (Elina Lswensohn) is a trust-fund brat of sorts, coasting on a limitless money supply and a few other family perks. She wears a lot of black, and she lives in New York. She has huge dark eyes and a heavy accent that suits her flair for the dramatic. "I was born by the Black Sea, under the shadow of the Carpathian Mountains," she tells a sullen American named Lucy (Galaxy Craze), upon meeting her one night at a bar. After a little more conversation and a little more alcohol, Nadja and Lucy's female bonding moves from the verbal to the physical. But this incredibly true story of two girls in love isn't shiny and happy: Lucy soon finds herself bleeding, between the legs and elsewhere.
Michael Almereyda's Nadja updates a long-dormant subgenre -- the lesbian vampire film -- but its relationship metaphors extend beyond sex to suffocating families, urban alienation, and (of course) AIDS. Almereyda's stylistic accessories are subtler than those of The Hunger, the last trendy tale of New York bloodsuckers. The Hunger had soulless narcissist David Bowie and hokey goth rockers Bauhaus moaning about Bela Lugosi. Nadja's musical elements (songs by My Bloody Valentine and Portishead) tap into the underlying melancholy and sensuality of vampire myth.
Nadja's foremost fashionable touch is visual, though. Some scenes are shot in Pixelvision, using a Fisher-Price kiddie camera no longer available in stores, that divides images into tiny squares. The contraption's advantages -- more apparent in the short films of Pixelvision pioneer Sadie Benning -- are its hand-held versatility (which results in heightened intimacy) and a fragmented image that's the equivalent of distortion in rock music. Almereyda usually uses Pixelvision to signify vampire vision, but the format loses some potency blown up to 35mm.
Nadja veers back and forth between postmodern irony and sincere surrealism. The former approach is responsible for a hammy turn by Peter Fonda, who, after driving a stake through the heart of Nadja's father, compares him to "Elvis near the end." It's also apparent in the script, a mix of cultural references --the film shares its title with an Andre Breton novel -- and philosophical musing that recalls David Lynch (who makes a cameo).
Thankfully, unlike latter-day Lynch, Almereyda isn't impressed with his own cleverness. Because he isn't so glib, Nadja's black-and-white dream imagery is sometimes moving, an accomplishment at a time when independent film favors in-crowd erudition over imagination. Almereyda's best risks occur when the primary characters gather in an apartment that mutates into a mazelike mansion. Eventually, the city itself functions like a haunted house: Nadja floats down empty streets propelled by her loneliness. Allowing his tragic heroine the film's last words, Almereyda offers a complicated conclusion that both subverts and embraces the morals of a traditional horror-flick finale.
Nadja opens Fri, Oct. 6, at the Castro Theatre in S.F. and the Shattuck in Berkeley.