“It’s a game where the viewer is asked to get involved.” That’s how writer-director Olivier Assayas describes his auteur opus Irma Vep, “a comedy about brilliance.” The film is indeed very clever and generously makes the viewer feel equally clever for enjoying it. Make no mistake, this is about as arty as an art film can get. If you are a cinephile, there’s nothing to dislike here as every minute, every nuance is a delight. At times it can get a tad didactic and some of the characters deliver dialogue that almost constitutes a mini lecture on the historical context of French cinema, but that’s fine by me. Then it’s suddenly a documentary about its own production, and next you’re watching a beautifully observed comedy of manners, a screwball romance, a visual poem, an exercise in constructivist composition… a knowing nod to fellow movie nerds.
Les Vampires (1915-16) was a classic French film series from the silent era, created by Louis Feuillade. Although heavily imbued with Gothic tropes, there were no overt supernatural elements, except a suggestion of mesmeric control. The titular ‘vampires’ are actually a secret society of super criminals who control the Parisian underworld. The third instalment of the series saw the introduction of nightclub singer Irma Vep (an early role for Jeanne ‘Musidora’ Roques), who remains a high goth heroine. There’s a clue to Irma Vep’s complicity in her name if you work out the anagram. She’s recruited into Les Vampires to infiltrate the home of newspaper reporter Philippe Guérande (Édouard Mathé) and retrieve the ‘Red Code Book’, a damning catalogue of their nefarious activities.
The plot of Assayas’ Irma Vep revolves around the creative angst of film director René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud) as he attempts to reboot Les Vampires for a modern audience. The film opens with the production team trying to sell the idea over the telephone to investors, pushing it as being an art film with “cultural” value. The camera wanders through the offices, from one member of the team to the other, as three prop guns arrive and are nonchalantly passed around. The way they gesture to each other and the air with the pistols feels dangerous, and immediately there’s a tension between reality and cinematic illusion. The guns look authentic, but the casual handling implies they are not.
People pass in front of the camera, briefly obscuring our view in fly-on-the-wall documentary style, until we see the casting director interviewing hopefuls in another room separated by a huge window. An invisible fourth wall. Get it? Assayas is easing us gently into an exploration of visual linguistics. Early on, there’s also a cleverly conspicuous edit when one scene follows on from the last, signified by a cigarette being lit from the previous by a chain-smoker. Anyone familiar with Roland Barthes’ structuralist theories will have a good chuckle at this and be ready to look out for his five narrative codes in action…
Jean-Pierre Léaud is a veteran actor of French cinema who’d previously worked with François Truffaut, Jean Cocteau, and became a favourite of Jean-Luc Godard. Here he’s a scene-stealer with his overly intense director persona, coming across a little like Brando’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now (1979). When we meet him, he’s almost a caricature of a genius French director, a visionary, a cliché. “He used to be very good,” we’re told, but soon his façade is crumbling to reveal his insecurities and obsessions.
He decides to make his reboot as a black-and-white silent film and, returning to the source material, he borrows from an earlier film series of Louis Feuillade: Fantômas (1913), which followed the escapades of an antihero master crook. This character was already familiar to French audiences from a series of novels and serialised stories, and is seen as the template for the modern serial killer genre, breaking literary convention by following the exploits of the villain.
He decides to make his Irma Vep (Maggie Cheung) more of an elusive ‘cat burglar’ and has her dressed in a skin tight latex cat-suit and adapted gimp mask. The scene where costume designer Zoé (Nathalie Richard) takes Maggie Cheung for her costume fitting in a sex shop is ingeniously manipulated to introduce a sensitive lesbian sub-text. Well, it doesn’t remain sub for long…
In her shiny suit and face mask she bears a striking resemblance to super-villain Diabolik, the Italian star of the hugely successful Fumetti Neri (noir comic-book) series and its cult Mario Bava adaptation Danger: Diabolik (1968). This would be no coincidence as he, too, was inspired by the classic French Fantômas serials and Assayas, the real director, would be completely aware of this.
I get the feeling that Assayas, recently recognised with a Best Director Award at Cannes for Personal Shopper (2016), is well aware of every little reference, every tiny signifier, and what it may signify. He’s toying with us. Building up a pretence only to tear it down. Presenting us with a puzzle and then generously handing us the solution. He trains the viewer to understand the visual language of cinema, making the film a must-see for anyone studying media or film. The characters themselves, being part of a film crew within the film, analyse ‘real’ life as if it were a film… which, of course it is! They identify the signifiers, then debate what may be signified. They talk about relationships as if analysing dramatic language.
Here’s an example of how spot-on his visual conjuring can be. On first viewing, I was just thinking that the monochrome shots of Cheung in her bondage suit reminded me of the work of Japanese photographer Arākī. Then, I became aware of the film grain during scenes shot in low light and was reminded of the work of one of my favourite photographers, and sometime collaborator of Arākī, Daidō Moriyama. Moriyama approaches the photograph not as a representation of the real world, but merely the formal arrangements of light and dark on a surface. He utilises film grain to draw attention to this surface in the same way that Arākī may draw attention to the surface of a body by having it wrapped in cellophane or latex. Both are involved with removing the illusion of form from the reality of a surface.
Well, I was pondering all this (because the film gets you thinking that way) when René Vidal, talking to Maggie Cheung, says “you’re saying you are at the centre of the scene, whereas, in fact you are just at the surface.” To which she responds “if you feel it, you are inside, you’re not on the surface.” And in his intense manner he pursues, “you feel it?” She shrugs and he says “I feel nothing” quietly with restrained frustration and anger. “Everything is fantasy… is deception.” And there you have it: what David Lynch would call “the eye of the duck,” the scene that informs the whole and gives the film its form. Shortly after, there’s a laugh-out-loud scene in which the cast and crew watch the rushes—a film-within-a-film-within-a-film—the shots of audience reaction and the final outburst of the irate director brought to mind a similar scene from Mel Brook’s The Producers (1967)!
Everything about Irma Vep is super cool. Maggie Cheung’s latex-clad Irma is an icon in waiting. One of my favourite scenes, where Maggie ‘becomes’ Irma, is set to Sonic Youth’s “Tunic (Song for Karen)” with its “Goodbye Hollywood” lyric. This dream-like sequence sees Maggie become absorbed by a burglary fantasy and sneak into another hotel room to steal some jewellery. The scene is effectively suspenseful, especially as the room she stealthily steals from is still occupied, by a naked woman we see framed in the bedroom doorway in a clear reference to Marcel Duchamp’s final installation work, Étant Donnés (1946–1966). One thing’s for sure, latex is just too creaky to be sneaky.
The rest of the score is equally impeccable, with “Bonnie and Clyde”, the Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot duet, featuring prominently. If I’d seen this film at an impressionable age, it may well have become one of my all-time favourites. Not many art films are this much fun!
Blu-ray Special Edition Contents:
I’m ashamed to say, I missed out on this classic first time round, so I’m grateful to Arrow Academy for their new Blu-ray release with its beautiful 2K restoration from the original negative, supervised and approved by Assayas himself. The release also comes with a bunch of special features offering in-depth insights into the film:
- 2K restoration from the original negative, supervised and approved by Olivier Assayas.
- High Definition (1080p) Blu-ray presentation.
- Original 2.0 Stereo DTS-HD Master Audio.
- Optional English subtitles.
- Audio commentary by writer-director Olivier Assayas and critic Jean-Michel Frodon. What’s described as an audio commentary, by writer-director Olivier Assayas and Jean-Michel Frodon, isn’t really a commentary at all. It’s a panel-format interview recorded live at a film festival when Frodon (film historian and critic) was the editor of French film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma. What you get is a fascinating, though fairly highbrow, discussion about the cultural position of so called ‘art films’. They debate approaches and relative values of making films, watching films, writing and talking about films and the interdependence of these activities. Rarely does what they’re saying have any immediate relevance with what’s on the screen. Their discussion would have been better suited as a separate featurette, illustrated with appropriate clips and archive images. It’s like sitting in the row behind some enthusiastic film buffs who won’t stop talking about lots of other films. But when you think about it, Irma Vep is a film that talks about lots of other films. So, it ends up being yet another layer of meta meaning. I’d like to believe that’s an intentional conceptual decision.
- On the Set of Irma Vep, a 30-minute behind-the-scenes featurette with optional commentary by Assayas and Frodon. We actually see a behind-the-scenes ‘extra’ being filmed within the main feature, so this featurette just feels like a big out-take – it’s just like watching deleted scenes! There are contributions from various members of cast and crew that add extra depth to the already satisfying viewing experience.
- Interview with Assayas and critic Charles Tesson. Another interview with Assayas, this time with Charles Tesson, would’ve been a far a better commentary. Charles Tesson is a documentary filmmaker, producer, and film historian, who, in 1984, travelled with Assayas to Hong Kong to investigate Asian cinema for an in-depth article for Cahiers du Cinéma. Assayas does most of the talking in fast French, his passion for Hong Kong cinema plainly evident. It becomes clear that the seeds that would grow into his screenplay for Irma Vep were gathered during this extended research visit. He found Taiwan’s unique New Wave scene particularly stimulating at the time. Due to the scarcity of funding and scant resources, films were being made as a collaborative process by collectives of directors making ‘sketches’ and thematically linked segments that were then stitched together into feature films. That really does sound interesting and perhaps something I should seek out! This approach is similar to Paris, Je t’Aime (2006) a lyrical love letter to the City of Love, filmed in 20 linked segments, one of which was contributed by Assayas. It was this innovative approach to filmmaking that was perhaps his main creative influence when making Irma Vep. They talk about how the ideas for Irma Vep developed from inspiration, through research, writing, and casting, to shooting. Assayas describes how casting Maggie Cheung in the lead role was absolutely pivotal to the plot. He talks about how Asian cinema can be enjoyed by western audiences and become popular even when it’s been severed from its cultural and historical contexts, and the isolated Chinese actress on a French production in Paris is symbolic of this. The concept reminded me very much of “China Girl”, the song David Bowie wrote with Iggy Pop during their Berlin years.
- Interview with actors Maggie Cheung and Nathalie Richard. The double-header interview with Maggie Cheung and Nathalie Richard was recorded in 2003 and is conducted in English and French, paralleling the scripted dialogue. You begin to question if the interview may have also been scripted, at least to some extent, functioning as another extension of the film. Cheung recounts her experience of being approached by Assayas and finding herself intrigued by the visuals of the sample silent videos of Feuillade’s work, he sent to her. There seems to be very little difference between her and the character she plays. She, too, came from China and found herself among people who spoke a language she couldn’t easily understand, although the visual language of filmmaking was something they all could speak. The interview begins to blur the fantasy of the film with the reality of its production. It turns out that much of the making of Irma Vep is encapsulated in the finished screenplay and we get another nested narrative developing between the two actresses. Richard explains her approach to playing Zoé and highlights the subtle comedic elements that she enjoyed bringing to the fore.
- Man Yuk: A Portrait of Maggie Cheung, a 1997 short film by Assayas. The short Sans Titre (1997), billed as ‘A Portrait of Maggie Cheung’, is an experimental vignette that again integrates very well with the film. It has echoes of Cinéma Vérité and is constructed in the same way as the final few minutes of Irma Vep, poetically conversing with and extending the viewing experience for just a few more minutes.
- Black and white rushes. These are endlessly watchable and themselves a little segment of the film trapped in a lovely isolated loop. They have no sound, which seems fitting after watching the film, though they do beg a cool soundtrack, maybe more from Sonic Youth. Here they are presented apart, and yet remain a part of the whole.
- Theatrical Trailer. This is like fractal shard of the whole film, reminding the viewer how the fractured narrative eventually gels into a very self-aware post-modern masterpiece.
- Reversible sleeve featuring original and newly commissioned artwork by Peter Strain
- First pressing only: Illustrated collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic Neil Young
Cast & Crew
writer & director: Olivier Assayas.
starring: Maggie Cheung, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Nathalie Richard, Bulle Ogier, Lou Castel, Arsinée Khanjian, Antoine Basler, Nathalie Boutefeu, Alex Descas & Olivier Torres.