Lawrence Russell

Deja vu (1998) dir. Henry Jaglom writ. Victoria Foyt and Henry Jaglom (based on a short story by Jaglom) cine. Hanania Baer music. Gaili Schoen star. Victoria Foyt (Dana), Stephen Dillane (Sean), Michael Brandon, Vanessa Redgrave, Aviva Marks, Vernon Dobtcheff, Noel Harrison, Anna Massey, Rachel Kempson

Deja vu: ghosts in the genes

An American woman is in Jerusalem, acquiring products for her business back in L.A. She's sitting alone on an outdoor patio overlooking the walls when she's joined by an older woman who admires her engagement ring. In response, Dana (Victoria Foyt) admires the older woman's brooch. The older woman (Aviva Marks) insists that Dana try the brooch on... and this leads to a reminiscence about a doomed wartime affair. Overcome by sentiment, the stranger excuses herself and disappears. When Dana later tries to deliver the brooch to her hotel, she discovers the hotel was destroyed and replaced thirty years ago....

On the basis of this ghostly encounter, Dana becomes obsessed with the brooch and its owner, heads for Paris, and later London. On the famous white cliffs of Dover she encounters a man painting the landscape, and it's a mutual deja vu. Students of literature, of course, will notice another deja vu -- the ghost of Henry James.

The style of this film is a highly mannered improvisational naturalism. Virtually all of the dialogue in all of the scenes appears to be improv, actors working variations on a theme. It's not as severe as the mechanized-stylizations in Last Year At Marienbad, say -- which also works the theme of reincarnation and destiny -- but it certainly presents a similar challenge to the audience. When it works, it really works... but at other times it drags the action to the point of self-conscious stasis. You immediately think of the maxim, art is by the bourgeois for the bourgeois. It's this Jamesian adoration of language in the subjective, of female head-talk, mystical rationalization and relativist ethics etc. that will make you either love or hate this film. There will be no middle opinion.

One of the most interesting scenes occurs at the London house of some friends, where Dana is staying with her fiance. Like the guests in Italo Calvino's The Castle of Crossed Destinies, they gather in the evening, recount personal stories that somehow reflect a common past and a fated present. Vanessa Redgrave is so good in her role that you think she really must be the sister of the host and that director Jaglom somehow borrowed part of her real family for the weekend.

When Dana is forced to return suddenly to L.A. because her father has a heart attack, the true significance of the mysterious brooch becomes apparent. Less apparent is the peculiar implication of Oedipal fixation and personality reincarnation. Romantic bullshit? You be the judge. This adventure in the material and immaterial worlds is pure Madame Blavatsky dressed up in feminist confusion.

"the enemy of art is the absence of limitations"

You wonder if 15 minutes were to be edited out, thereby reducing the playing time to 100 minutes, if some badly needed dramatic tension would be restored. It seems to have been filmed with one camera in Super 16 or less-than-super 35. A lot of the landscape lyricism is dulled by the format, and is perhaps unnecessary. Still, you can imagine what the glamour in the landscape and character would've been like if the production had been a David Lean-scale-of-economy. According to Jaglom, the Deja vu budget was 4 million dollars, which isn't a lot by the current Hollywood feature standard. Still, as Jaglom's old mentor Orson Welles said, "The enemy of art is the absence of limitations."

© LR 2/2000


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