Pain And Joy: A Life With NADJA Part Five

The final entry of a five-part essay examining the making of Michael Almereyda's NADJA and the author's personal connection with that film.

By David Obuchowski · @DavidOfromNJ · May 28, 2021, 3:16 PM EDT
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NADJA (1994)

PART 5: THE UNCERTAIN FUTURE OF NADJA. THE VOICES IN OUR HEADS.

In the previous installment, the author learned that the role of Lucy was significantly expanded by the director after he saw how excellent Galaxy Craze’s portrayal of the character was. Subsequent to the film’s release, Galaxy explored the possibility of dedicating her career to acting, but instead returned to her original, lifelong passion: writing. The author discussed his own successes and struggles in the field.

In their review of the film, The New York Times called it (among other things) “droll.” I won’t argue. It’s funny juxtaposing this low-key, nearly mundane talk with a vampire hunt led by an absolutely bonkers Van Helsing, played by Peter Fonda more as an Inspector Clouseau than a learned professor.

It’s funny, yes. But it isn’t the humor that has led me to carry and protect that DVD for decades, while I’ve thrown away so many other things from my past.

When I think about my past, I always come back to Brooklyn. My homecoming. The place where I truly found myself, where I sacrificed and toiled and lived the life of a starving artist. It was the place where I found traction and tasted the blood of success even as others called me a failure. It was the place I met the love of my life. And when I did, didn’t stop chasing my dreams and those phantoms of success.

But a new vision appeared. Settling down. A family.

“Something's gotta change.”

“Maybe we should have children”

“Children?”

“Would you like that?”

“I can almost picture it.”

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***

Before I’d first gotten on the phone with Galaxy, my head buzzed with all we’d talk about with regards to Nadja. Instead, we immediately and effortlessly found ourselves talking about our children: How old are they, how well do they get along, what kind of schools do they go to, what are their interests, do they play sports? And what about your husband – what’s he do? How about your wife, what’s she do?

Later on, I’ll tell her how, despite how funny I think the movie is, I’ve really come to love how poignant it is as a story about a young couple trying to just grow up and find some peace and stability. As an example, I cite the scene in the catacombs. The I-can-almost-picture-it scene.

“They were just, like, a New York couple,” Galaxy says of the movie’s Lucy and Jim. “And then now they find themselves on some random vampire chase.” She pauses a moment and says, “And, yeah, I think I've had moments like that, like, ‘What? Wait, let's just be normal and have kids and, like, get a house with a yard.’”

Galaxy and Sam did just that.

Sarah and I did, too.

But despite the geographical change, and leaving behind the freedom that comes with being a couple without kids, it was not a death of one life and the start of a new one. My wife is still an artist. And I’m still chasing the same dreams I dreamed when I’d walked into the Angelika in 1995. I create. I play music that I hope people will like. I write fiction that I hope will be published. I write essays like this, an essay about a movie that isn’t about a movie at all.

The dreams live on.

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***

And so it does in the woman who embodied Nadja.

In my long and wonderful conversation with Elina, the topic of success comes up, and, together, we run through the various things her castmates from Nadja have done. I ask her if she believes her career has been a successful one.

“In one way,” she tells me, “it’s a successful career because I was lucky enough to meet, along the way, certain people who could use me in a certain way, and the films have persisted throughout time. So that’s already a certain type of success. But if we talk of a financial success or big public success, no, it’s not. Maybe it might come, but I don’t have much hope for that,” she confesses.

“People usually think I have worked more than actually I did. Because probably certain things have remained in their mind so strongly that they have the impression that, ‘Wow she’s working a lot.’ But in fact, I never worked so much. Last year I did, in France, two films. It’s like, ‘Wow, how lucky that I did two films,’” she says ironically.

"All of a sudden, around ‘97, or before ‘97 I think, nothing for two years. Not in America nor in England, where I had an agent. And neither in France, where I’d started to act… Nothing," she tells me.

At that time, she was married to an artist. They were both struggling, particularly with finding work in America. So, they were faced with a decision: move to France where they felt they had better hope for success, or stay in New York and live with roommates. "I made the decision to stay in France because I didn’t want to still share an apartment with somebody. Because all my life, since when I started going to New York University, I was lucky enough to have roommates, friends, but when I met Philip, I didn’t want again roommates. So I said, 'We stay in France.' He was lucky to get a teaching job so we could live on it," Elina recalls.

But, as Elina tells me, the work didn't come for her. "I did nothing for two years and I was depressed to be in France because all my community was in America. My mother still lived in America, where she still lives now. I was in a deep depression, because my existence was defined, and still is, by what I do. Because the most difficult thing is, when someone says, ‘Well, what do you do?’ and I say, ‘I’m not doing anything because I’m not working.’ As a writer, at least, even if nobody wants your books you’re going to write because you need to write. Maybe music, maybe you’re going to compose or I don’t know what. Maybe a painting or visual arts, you’re going to construct. But as an actor I’m completely, one hundred percent dependent on someone’s desire of me."

This is a concept she's come to peace with, in part by studying Buddhist philosophy and meditation. She makes it clear that she may be an integral part of art, but she is not an artist. "I consider myself an interpreter. Okay, I’m a good piece of earth. I recognize it’s a good quality of earth. And it depends on whose hands I happen to be sculpted by. This is, to me, this is the one thing. So, to go back to this feeling of how the meditation helped me or this philosophy of Buddhism, it has given me strength to perceive it more objectively, and to accept the moments where there was nothing coming."

Elina is still close with her ex-husband, and as previously mentioned, she still lives in Paris. Her partner now is Bertrand Mandico, a French filmmaker whom Elina says was influenced to some extent by Nadja. Particularly in France, Mandico is has gained much attention for his highly stylized films such as his 2011 short film, Boro In The Box, and his 2017 feature The Wild Boys, which was ranked the #1 film of the year by Cahiers du Cinéma. Elina appears in both of these films (and more), and makes a massive impact in both.

"I’ve started now to do little films," Elina tells me. "I did a short film years ago and I started to do more of the experimental type of films," she says. "With age, I started to accept the fact that it will be less and less. But I’m still worried, and I’m still reassured if, six months from now, I have a job."

She goes on to share that she also feels somewhat better about things because she's secured unemployment. I don't hide my shock that Nadja herself, Elina Löwensohn, who's also appeared in Seinfeld and Schindler's List, is on unemployment, with only one or two jobs booked every year.

Part of the problem, of course, is something that impacts men far less in this profession: time itself. Age. Elina knows this. But she also says, "In some ways the age is helping me because, okay, I’m not anymore the ingenue, the beauty. I didn’t even consider myself beautiful but let’s say," she says acknowledging what she must know to be true, "I had a good face. The age is changing. I’m not gonna do any work on my face, so at least I’ll be one of the few actresses who will have a real face."

In France, Elina says, "They call me now the muse of Bertrand Mandico. I don’t know if I’m his muse – he also writes for other actresses. He loves working with women more than with men. But I’m already so lucky that at my age, at 54, I’m still able to say that I’m doing real fucking interesting work. And Michael [Almereyda] loves the work of Bertrand and they love each other and they’ve met several times and Bertrand saw Nadja before anybody in France [where the film was never released] saw it, because he actually ordered the DVD in America even though he doesn’t speak English."

The film holds a special place in her heart, as well. When I tell her I believe the film is a masterpiece, she says, "For me, if someone asks me what are your films that you’re most proud of that you’ve done in the past, I always mention Hal Hartley and Michael Almereyda. Not that I did so, so many, but for me Nadja is extremely important, as important as Hal, as important as Bertrand Mandico who I’m working with lately.”

But, Elina strives on – a muse, 54 years old, good earth, who is on unemployment. She searches for more success or greatness or to be shaped by more brilliant artists. And I'm humbled when she tells me, "I hope that this will give birth to other possibilities to keep on working as an aging, let’s say, actress."

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***

After her acclaimed novels By The Shore and its sequel Tiger, Tiger, Galaxy wrote three YA novels: The Last Princess (2012, Poppy), Invasion (2015, Poppy), and Mapmaker (2015, Soho Teen; co-written with Mark Bomback).

Her output in the last five years has slowed. Though it’s not because of any dramatic event or decision. Rather, it’s merely the stuff of life: dealing with the difficulties of an ailing mother (who passed away), raising kids, moving.

But Galaxy hasn’t stopped writing. I know that firsthand from some new short stories she’s sent me which are truly magnificent. But in addition to her writing and being a mom, she’s focusing on other other avenues that she’s always felt strongly about but has never really been able to dedicate herself to. For instance, social justice causes.

This was a passion that was reignited when, she says, “I came upon the Innocence Project. And I started reading all these cases. And I found this one boy who had been wrongly accused of rape in the ‘80s, and then he later ended up dying in prison of an asthma attack. But then he was exonerated when DNA was discovered. It really got to me… I just remember thinking about these lawyers [at the Innocence Project]. They’re freeing innocent people from jail. They’re trying to get laws changed.”

After speaking with Galaxy so much, I’ve become used to how she speaks: it’s introspective and quiet; at times, it almost seems uncertain. And yet, when she talks about this topic, she raises her voice and speaks almost authoritatively.

“There are laws where someone can be in jail, they can have the DNA, and the courts will refuse to retest it for whatever reason. I don’t understand how that’s legal,” she says, sounding truly aghast. “Really, how many innocent people are probably in jail? How hard is it to fight against the justice system? Once you’re in jail, it’s glacial. That’s it. How unfair it is!"

As a writer, it’s something that she’s inspired to write about. Though, she has no illusions about it. “When I discover stuff like this, or people who are actually going and saving endangered species or putting their life on the line, do I feel like writing’s lame? Yes, absolutely,” she admits. “And that then kind of feeds into my self-doubt. Is writing a luxury? Yeah, kind of,” she says.

But then, she tells me, “I also have to accept that it’s the path I took and I have to...” she doesn’t finish the sentence. She takes a moment and then she says something simply, plainly, confidently, but also in a way that makes it sound like a bit of a revelation: “I shouldn’t always doubt everything I do.”

It’s an inspiring sentiment. A revelation. If not for her, certainly for me.

***

I want to tell all my friends, I want to tell the world: go watch this movie. Go watch Nadja.

Only, unless you’re like me and own the DVD, that’s not really possible. The DVDs are out of print, and the film isn’t available anywhere to stream.

For such a lushly photographed film and for its cult status, one might expect a special edition DVD or Blu-ray, but no such luck. Here and there, it’s had special theatrical showings, including in Paris in 2019 at the legendary Cinémathèque Française, which was notable because this meant its first official release in France was roughly 25 years after the film was made. Elina’s partner, Bertrand Mandico, was one of the French filmmakers who’d lobbied hard for the showing.

Still, aside from these one-offs, Nadja is, essentially, not available. This does not escape many of the people involved with making the film.

"That's ridiculous,” cinematographer Jim Denault tells me at the end of our conversation. “We need to do a 2K transfer."

I tell him I agree, and he elaborates: "I think they were looking for sound elements from it. I remember [producer] Amy Hobby called me a while back, I think, trying to do that. But I think they're missing parts of it, which is ridiculous. I have no idea how people lose parts of movies, but I know Michael has a pristine print that has an extra deleted scene in it. But I would love it if they did a new transfer because it's so frustrating that there's no 2K or 4K version."

I ask him if he has any idea why things haven’t moved forward with a special release, and he tells me, “Mary Sweeney was David Lynch's wife or partner... She was the producer of the film. I know that they broke up.”

I ask him if it’s possible that complications or disagreements arose as a result. “I don't have any firsthand knowledge of that,” he answers.

But my research suggests Mary Sweeney or the breakup is likely not the bottleneck. Seems that, appropriately, it’s the person who single-handedly financed the film: David Lynch. I ask Jared Harris more about this, and all he says is: “That’s interesting. I wonder why. It can’t be high up on his list of priorities. I wonder what that’s about.”

Elina confirms my research when she says, “It's very difficult on the rights of the film. David Lynch has the rights and for some reason he’s very tight about his rights.” She adds: “This is what Michael told me.”

Michael confirms that David Lynch is, in fact, the person who holds the key to the film’s release. “David Lynch owns the film,” he wrote to me, adding: “And David hasn't – for reasons unclear to me – allowed a DVD release for some time.”

For his part, Martin sounds genuinely disappointed the film is unavailable.“God, I didn’t know that. I didn’t know that David was hanging onto that. That’s weird,” he tells me. And when I ask him if he’d like to see Lynch allow a new special release, he says, “Well, I hope so… I hope he does. I really do. I hope he gets it.”

Before we disconnect, Martin tells me, “I really hope you can find out more about this from Michael and maybe, seriously, maybe this FANGORIA thing will help. Maybe you can... I would think Michael would want to get it out there. I mean, why wouldn’t he? Some kind of campaign to get Lynch to do it,” Martin says.

I asked Michael Almereyda over email if he’s been in touch with Lynch about this topic. He replied, “He's clearly a very busy person. I've been meaning to re-approach him, but I've been too busy to.”

I made an attempt to reach David Lynch and ask him about it, but was told by one of his colleagues, “Unfortunately, Mr. Lynch is focused on his work right now and wants to remain that way. He is not doing interviews or accepting submissions or anything else right now, so I am unable to forward your questions to him.”

***

Perhaps Nadja will return. Then again, maybe it won’t. For me, though, it still lives on thanks to my aging DVD. And even if something happened to that, I wouldn’t be able to forget the film. It’s become a part of me. It’s something I love. And what you love, what you hope for, what you chase after, what you dream of, those things might come into your possession, or they might slip from your grasp and into the darkness of shadows. But they’re always part of you.

At the end of Nadja, she has a stake driven through her heart. She doesn’t even fight it. But as this scene dissolves into the final shots, it’s not Jim’s or Lucy’s or Van Helsing’s voice we hear – it’s Nadja’s. She lives on, though in a different form.

“At first, I felt shattered, lost,” Nadja says about her Earthly form’s destruction. “But every day is better.” She ponders death, the great beyond. She says, “Sometimes, at night, I hear a voice in my head.”

We all hear voices at night. Sometimes the voices I hear are from the past. The voices of those who asked me when I’d finally quit and admit I was a failure. The voices of those who pointed at me and said I’m not the person I was trying so hard to be.

Other times, they are the voices of those who encourage me, lift me up, love me.

“Who is it?” Nadja asks in the final voiceover. “Is it you? Nadja?”

It is. Those voices we hear, no matter the words or who may have first said them to us, are ultimately our own. The memories we hold on to, the resentments, the fears, and all that we strive for.

Because, even for the undead, the things that keep us up at night are nothing less than our own demons, our own dreams.

Read the entire essay here.