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Déjà vu (1985) | Blu-ray Review

Déjà vu (1985) | Blu-ray Review

Déjà vu Blu-rayA French maxim denoting a particular experience of already having seen or experienced something, the term Déjà vu reached its pop saturation point long before Beyoncé and Tony Scott used it as a title for song and film in the 2000s. And so the clichéd turn of phrase does little to enliven the re-discovery of Anthony B. Richmond’s sole 1985 directorial outing of the same name, adapted from the novel Always by Trevor Meldal-Johnsen.

At one time, Richmond was a revered cinematographer thanks to a succession of films he lensed for Nicolas Roeg (Don’t Look Now; The Man Who Fell to Earth; Bad Timing), before segueing into a variety of glossy studio fodder (on the more notable end with items like Legally Blonde and Men of Honor, while lately he’s been serving the Diary of a Wimpy Kid franchise) and his directorial debut, despite featuring headliner Jaclyn Smith, fell swiftly into obscurity thanks to a dismissive critical reception.

Although the film juggles more themes than it can handle for a a gothic psychic romance, Richmond does succeed in some effective ambience with a debut not quite able to break out of its concept to engage in any real thrills.

Successful author Greg (Nigel Terry) finds himself intrigued by the tragic history of 1930s ballerina Brooke Ashley (Jaclyn Smith) after he attends a documentary on her life and career with his girlfriend Maggie (also Smith). As he begins to research the mysterious circumstances around a fire which ended the life of her mother (Claire Bloom) and fiancé, famed choreographer Michael Richardson (also Terry) for a potential screenplay, Greg begins to experience some unexplainable emotional ties with the deceased dancer and her lover. After visiting with Ashley’s cohort, Olga Nabokov (Shelley Winters), who was involved with the dancer, the aged psychic assures Greg she can connect him with the past through hypnosis. But neither of them realizes these figures from the past are hungry for a second chance at life.

Though she’s the star of the film, Smith ends up being the weakest link, though not entirely through a fault of her own. The film favors the perspective of Nigel Terry (he even gets a line about his “male intuition”) as the writer cum 1930s choreographer whose love for a woman inevitably results in her demise. Because of this, both versions of Smith are kept at arm’s length, her 1980s blonde cropped persona (looking like a Lifetime reconfiguration of Nicole Brown Simpson) isn’t featured enough to be more than a shrewish shell, while the tragic ballerina persona is only shown to be wrapped up in emotional turmoil over a dime store love affair.

One could see this as a stellar vehicle for Genevieve Bujold (who is used to similar effect in De Palma’s Obsession) had the role been a bit more substantial. However, the title stands as one of Smith’s few theatrical releases (she had starred in 1980’s Nightkill, which had been lensed by Richmond) and wouldn’t appear in theaters again until the late 1990s.

Déjà vu plays with facets of reincarnation, once a popular genre motif, now more earnestly proposed as something akin to possession in today’s storytelling terms. But too many illogical coincidences tend to make Richmond’s film seem silly instead of mysterious. An accidental exposure to the deceased couple via a documentary film is what spurs the action, which is somewhat distracting considering Smith and Terry are both doing double duty—it would have been creepier if actors resembling them had played the dead couple, which could have potentially opened up the scenario to complex, suggestive levels.

In supporting roles, a creepy Claire Bloom steals some scenes as Brooke’s overprotective mother, a relationship which could have used a few more establishing sequences. Unfortunately, the film’s other major casting misstep is Shelley Winters as a Russian psychic, named Olga Nabokov, no less (Winters famously starred in Kubrick’s adaptation of Nabokov’s Lolita). Winters has the requisite look for a fussy psychic oligarch, not unlike the dowdy wannabe played by Kim Stanley in Séance on a Wet Afternoon. However, the questionable accent doesn’t do her serious moments any favors.

Landing on the spectrum of films which includes Somewhere in Time (1980) and the superb Resurrection (1980), Richmond’s Déjà vu is one of many failed outings from cinematographers turned directors (though nowhere near as problematic and dated as something like Gordon Willis’ Windows, 1980), but has a certain elegance about it which many subsequent genre hybrids lacked.

A grand finale in which Nigel Terry must confront the resurrected entity trailing him (“you were attacked on a purely psychic level,” Winters initially explains to Terry and us) is unnerving and could have been significant had he managed to finagle the same energy from the rest of a sometimes stagnant endeavor. In retrospect, Déjà vu is doomed to be unfavorably compared to Kenneth Branagh’s 1991 title Dead Again, but Richmond’s treatment is as subtle as the latter film is unabashedly hysterical.

Disc Review:

Olive Films continues to impress with its back catalogue of obscure oddities. Déjà vu gets presented in 1.85:1 in this transfer, and picture and sound quality are serviceable. Curiously, Richmond would hire DP David Holmes (in what would stand as his final credit) rather than take over himself, despite a flair for the enigmatic, which would later enliven Bernard Rose’s Candyman (1992). The release features no additional bonus features.

Final Thoughts:

A mid-80s oddity worth a look for genre fans (as well as a rare cinematic effort starring Jaclyn Smith), Déjà vu may give you the eponymous feeling it promises, though not always to the film’s benefit.

Film Review: ★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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