Credit: Letterboxd
by Selina Lee Featured Film Kicking the Canon

Irma Vep | Olivier Assayas

January 18, 2021

When Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep came out in 1996, the brash, freewheeling experimentalism of the French New Wave was already long in the rearview. Luc Besson was pumping out reliably stylized action-thrillers like La Femme Nikita and Léon. Saccharine crowd-pleasers like Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie were only a few years away. Handily tackling the tension between navel-gazing arthouse and Hollywood-style blockbuster, between the trend toward unnecessary remake and the recurrence of creatively bankrupt original stories, Assayas casts famed Hong Kong-born actress Maggie Cheung as herself, in a role which sees her filming a remake of the influential 1915 serial Les Vampires. To clarify: Giant of the French New Wave Jean-Pierre Léaud, whom Assayas casts here not as himself but as fading fictional director René Vidal, casts Maggie Cheung, as herself, in the role of Musidora, the catsuit-sporting jewel thief Irma Vep. This meta-fictive setup revolves wholly around Cheung, who is repeatedly dismissed as “the Chinese actress” by a rival director, and she must contend with a significant language barrier, the romantic advances of costume dresser Zoé (a wonderfully harried Nathalie Richard), endless bickering among the crew and producers, and Vidal’s increasingly erratic behavior on- and off-set. 

Written in two weeks and shot in four on a shoestring budget of one million US dollars, cinematographer Eric Gautier captures the behind-the-scenes frenzy of a film set perpetually on the brink of collapse. In thoroughly removing all traces of Hollywood glamor (Zoé and Maggie shop for her latex catsuit in a tawdry sex shop), we see contemporary filmmaking for what it is: a collection of people trying to make a living, working with colleagues they often despise, and generally behaving pretty ambivalently toward whatever role they’ve been hired for as part of the creation process. Assayas abruptly cuts between snippets of the original Les Vampires, shots of Vidal’s dailies, and his diegetic film proper, a disorienting splice job that mirrors Maggie’s experience on set. Much of this is only semi-coherent — for a dialogue-heavy movie that’s so concerned with matters of interpretation and authenticity, that seems appropriate. Léaud’s heavily accented English isn’t subtitled, leaving non-French speaking audiences (like Maggie) to strain for meaning and direction from someone with whom they can’t quite communicate. At the same time, much of the French dialogue that is translated occurs during a drunken dinner party, or scenes of bosses berating their subordinates — scenes which are inconsequential to the film-within-a-film’s final result, but vital to Assayas’s overall skewering of the French film industry.

Cheung had already starred in over 60 movies in Hong Kong at the time that Assayas cast her, and the “character” that she plays quickly becomes the subject of gossip and misplaced desire within the film (which adds some spice to the detail that Assayas and Cheung would soon marry, briefly, and then divorce). More interestingly, Irma Vep’s conception of Cheung becomes a sounding board for seemingly everyone’s ideas about the state of French cinema — especially in relation to what “the Americans” were simultaneously creating across the pond. In one scene, an oafish journalist chides Cheung for supporting “cinema about your navel,” saying that action thrillers, those in the vein of Arnold Schwarzenegger testosterone fests, were the future of the industry. But it’s Irma Vep’s most famous scene that proves most biting: Cheung impulsively dons her film-within-a-film’s character’s latex suit and slinks around her hotel, eventually creeping into a room and stealing an American woman’s necklace. Said woman, played in the voluptuous nude by Armenian actress Arsinée Khanjian, here seems to symbolize everything that’s objectionable about modern cinema; in truth, her nudity might be gratuitous, but, right down to the red of her painted toes, Khanjian is an undeniable feast for the senses. A neat counterpoint to this withering critique is Cheung herself, who intuitively embodies her character’s fluid movements and effortless grace, slipping through the night far more elegantly than her French body double (which might have something to do with her work in wuxia films). This improvisational brilliance is a crucial gesture in a movie where Cheung is frequently stranded, late, or otherwise left out.

At the end, Leaud’s Vidal has a nervous breakdown before he can complete his Les Vampires, and the French film industry hurtles towards production of more intellectually vacuous blockbusters, as no one seems quite sure what to do with the here and now of the nation’s cinema. In a 1997 interview with the Washington Post, Assayas addresses this quandary directly: “The question, for me, is how to tell a story in a way which is not yesterday, or tomorrow, but exactly today.” The film’s coda — an abrasive stream of deconstructed footage that blurs the line between art installation, music video, and feature film — is his answer. As Iranian auteur Abbas Kiarostami did with Taste of Cherry, which released a year later, Assayas uses the last few minutes of his movie to undermine its creation. And, in doing so, he reminds audiences that a film is both a narrative construct and the medium by which it’s told, effectively pinning his audiences to not just the “exactly today” that he strives for, but to the exact moment itself.

Part of Kicking the Canon – The Film Canon.