It’s possible that you’ve seen a film called Déjà Vu before. Tony Scott directed an excellent thriller by that title starring Denzel Washington in 2006, and Henry Jaglom made a good romance of that name in 1997. The movie under discussion today, however, is a 1985 Cannon Production shot in London and Paris, and it’s a romantic reincarnation thriller whose plot twists and chronology perch it between J. Lee Thompson’s The Reincarnation of Peter Proud (1975) and Kenneth Branagh’s Dead Again (1991).
Fourth-billed Nigel Terry plays the central character, a writer named Gregory living happily with actress Maggie (Jaclyn Smith). She drags him to a classic black and white ballet film from the ‘30s (because there are so many!) starring one Brooke Ashley, and he becomes fascinated by Maggie’s uncanny resemblance to Brooke, although Maggie doesn’t seem to notice it. Maybe it’s because they both have such different hair.
Gregory begins writing a screenplay in which he imagines himself as a choreographer named Michael Richardson who falls in love with Brooke Ashley, only to discover that a real choreographer by that name existed (who didn’t resemble him, although he’ll continue to picture himself in the role), and that he died in a mysterious fire along with Brooke and her mother (Claire Bloom).
In his research, Gregory instantly connects with a medium, Olga Nabakova (Shelley Winters), who supposedly knew the victims “intimately” 50 years ago, not that her character ever appears in the flashbacks. She uses hypnosis to regress Greg into memories of that other life while odd and sinister things happen in the present. Madame Olga is given the heavy lifting of shifting the plot around with her explanations and insights, and the cards of credibility are stacked against her; no wonder it doesn’t matter when Greg knocks over her tarot table.
The 1930s flashbacks are, of course, the meat of the story, since finding out what happened back then becomes the whole McGuffin. One major problem with the screenplay’s structure is getting to those parts. In between, the narrative waffles and wobbles with either too much exposition or not enough, interrupting the proceedings unconvincingly. One especially peculiar scene, after much setting up, cuts away after a freeze frame and skips over what must have come after.
The wrap-up includes one surprising revelation that viewers might predict, not as radical as that in Dead Again but whose motivation must finally be left up to the ubiquitous explanation of madness. The multiple names connected with the screenplay, based on a novel by Trevor Meldal-Johnsen, signal a vexed writing process.
This is the only film directed by Anthony Richmond, who was married to Smith at the time and for whom it must seemed a strong vehicle. Too bad the story’s whole point of view belongs to Nigel Terry’s role. Primarily a cinematographer, Richmond won a BAFTA early in his career for shooting Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), a “psychic thriller” you should watch.
Pino Donaggio scored both films, by the way, and his lushness on this one has correspondingly less energy. We should also mention production designer Tony Woollard, whose long career includes work for John Boorman and who had recently done Jerzy Skolimowski’s brilliant Moonlighting (1982). His wife Joanne Woollard decorated this film’s sets, and the movie always looks handsome.
The credited photographer is David Holmes, who worked on the final season of The Avengers, and this final bit of output occurs a full 13 years after his previous work, leading me to speculate on the degree to which Richmond might have shot the film himself. Like many a photographer, Richmond’s directorial debut looks better than it plays, and it looks no better than a mid-level ‘80s production that would fit comfortably on a cable channel like Lifetime, despite Terry’s brief nude scene.
// Notes from the Road
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