Irma Vep

A column article by: Danny Djeljosevic

Cigarette Burns is smart talk about films you may have seen.


 

Irma Vep

Olivier Assayas

1996

Irma Vep first came up in a class I took back in college -- Martial Arts Cinema, no joke -- where my professor described Olivier Assayas' film as being exclusively about how beautiful Maggie Cheung is. She was partially right -- Maggie Cheung is beautiful, and the film is so preoccupied with her that director Assayas ended up briefly married to her. But Irma Vep is about other things, too. Mostly about movies, as New Wavy films tend to be.

Textually, it's about an attempt to remake an old French film serial from 1915 called Les Vampires, which makes Irma Vep totally up my alley. I love metafiction, probably as a creative person (I dare not say "artist") I'm fascinated when someone can compellingly dramatize the process of creation. There's something to be learned from watching fictional people work like that. Movie productions are made up of dozens of personalities all attempting to create one thing. There's an inherent drama bubbling beneath that -- what if your cinematographer is a drunk? What if your talent are romantically linked, then break up? So I love stuff like 8 1/2, Everything for Sale, Contempt, CQ and even For Your Consideration. I didn't think My Week with Marilyn was very good, but the tension between Olivier and Monroe was delicious.

I love the breaking down and demystifying of cinema. This one time Chantal Akerman once made a documentary called The Eighties almost completely out of audition/production footage that blew my mind in the way it deconstructed the musical. Turns out it was in service of a later production called Golden Eighties that ended up being a formalist satire of musicals (and set in a shopping mall), but the effect ofThe Eighties in showing all the construction involved in creating even bubblegum pap is palpable.

Of course, it metafiction has to have a clear purpose lest the creator run the risk of being one of those the wheel-spinning Charlie Kaufman imitators who make movies about making movies because they don't know what to write about. I need something to chew on, and Irma Vep offers that by focusing on the state of French cinema circa 1996. The French practically invented the medium, smashed it into a million pieces in the '60s, but where are they 30 years later? The two most popular countries at the time as far as film production were Hong Kong and America, with their equally populist entertainment.

Where's France in this? The biggest hint we get is in the production of Les Vampires. A silent remake of a silent film, an attempt to relive past achievements. The other hint comes from the dude who "interviews" Maggie Cheung in the middle of the film by lambasting state of French cinema, where everyone's producing work that caters to no one but the intellectuals and critics. Which might be a hilarious auto-critique because Irma Vep is exactly that, but then again Assayas himself used to write for Cahiers so maybe he's just satirizing some sort of prevalent opinion at the time.

In any case, Les Vampires is probably the best film to use, not because of its cinematic importance (the "vampires" in the film aren't even supernatural), but just because the evocativeness of the idea of the vampire. The dead feeding off the living. In Irma Vep, the living feed off of the dead in an attempt to perpetuate themselves. Unscramble "Irma Vep" and you get "Vampire." Irma Vep is all about cultural vampires disguised as intellectuals. 

Irma Vep is also about shitty movies and that desperate desire to create something good. René the director -- who we're assured used to be supremely talented before he got lazy and distracted -- becomes obsessed with Cheung after seeing her in Heroic Trio, which is hilarious because the film is a weird and kind of shitty Hong Kong mishmash of Evil Dead 2 and Tim Burton Batman movies -- a fun watch, sure, but Johnnie To has done some legit incredible films in the ensuing years that make you wonder why Heroic Trio was even an option.

It's certainly no coincidence that René wants to base Cheung's character's costume on Michelle Pfeiffer's ridiculous S&M Catwoman duds. Later, Cheung and her costumer criticize the Batman films as being cinema for retards, with the costumer ranting that American studios spend tremendous budgets on films of microscopic artistic value. There's even a scene where a woman in a hotel room complains to someone over the phone that she's seen all the movies in town, including the Steven Segal movie, an act for which she will never forgive the person on the other line.

"Bad" movies make people mad, but in Irma Vep people rarely discuss good ones. It's easier to criticize a poor film, and for the reader it's a lot more fun to watch a critic eviscerate it. The hotel woman's scenario sounds heavenly to me. There are things one can appreciate from terrible movies -- witnessing a good idea used poorly, learning how not to tell a story, experiencing an interesting failure. Watch too many and you're culturally slumming. Maintain a balance and you might learn a thing or two.

It turns out the remake of Les Vampires is also shitty. We see the crew shooting some scenes, and the film seems stiff and completely lacking in humanity. It can't be good. But this is how I feel during any film production, from the stuff I used to make in college to the real productions I worked as an extra on (a cancelled CBS dramedy and a Werner Herzog film, if you're wondering) -- it seems so chaotic and disorderly that it couldn't possibly turn out well. Sometimes it turns out okay, sometimes it doesn't. To me, the editing process is essentially damage control. Either way, in the case of Les Vampires it doesn't work out: the rushes are awful, the director has a nervous breakdown and they bring in René's disinterested colleague to finish up the film. We don't see the final results, but we can kinda tell the production won't improve.

Assayas generally maintains a quiet documentary style for much of the film, but sometimes he goes completely nuts and gives us an energetic scene/possible dream sequence/satire of more popular films featuring Maggie Cheung thieving another room in her hotel set to a raucous Sonic Youth song. Though I can't help but wonder if this is some kind of litmus test for the viewer. Drop an energetic "action" sequence into the film to reveal the viewers with dumb mainstream sensibilities. I won't deny it -- I enjoy mainstream films as much as I enjoy the offbeat, the arty and the intellectually indulgent.

Later, Assayas ends the film with more rushes, but this time they've been altered, remixed into a weird lettrist piece that reminds me of a Man Ray film. This ending leads me to believe that Assayas is calling for filmmakers to try to advance the form, not wallow in past successes. Perhaps he's calling for a new cinematic avant-garde to shake the foundations of cinema. Never mind that, in a French New Wave-inspired film where remaking an early 20th century silent film is a sign of creative bankruptcy, Assayas uses a different early 20th century style to suggest untapped potential. To me that final sequence more of an aesthetic placeholder, possibly an admission that he doesn't have the answers. Either way, he's showing that there were alternative approaches to cinema then and there are certainly alternatives now.

The whole experience feels prescient. Let's look at the state of cinema today. The preponderance of big-budget superhero movies. The fact that a silent movie about silent movies just won a whole ton of Oscars and other "prestigious" "awards." Even everyone's favorite awards season snub, Drive, no matter how beautifully executed, is still on its surface a synth-pop Walter Hill riff. Considering how '90s nostalgia is the new big thing, Irma Vep is even moreso a surprisingly relevant film in 2012.


Jump Cuts

 

  • Scott Tobias of The AV Club wrote a great, way more coherent piece about Irma Vep that you should totally read now that you've finished my ramble.
  • Lest you think me a snob, the last movie I watched was 12 Rounds and it was a rollicking old-school '90s action movie thanks to director/unappreciated genius Renny Harlin. Though I kinda wonder how they managed to fill Matt Damon with all that ground beef.
  • Finally got around to the Batman: Year One animated film, and I'm really surprised how closely they stuck to the original story, being a Commissioner Gordon-centric drama guest-starring Batman. However, I really wish the people making these films were a bit more aesthetically adventurous. 
  • 21 Jump Street? That movie was the shit. It's so great in so many unexpected ways: a story with surprising emotional depth, a career-making performance from Channing Tatum, a clear admission that its "remake" status is bullshit and it's hilariously in continuity with the original series. Ultimately, 21 Jump Street feels like an original script that just had the title of an old TV show slapped on it for the sake of brand recognition. And it's from the people who brought you Clone High and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World! Real talk.

 


 

Danny Djeljosevic is a comic book creator, award-winning filmmaker (assuming you have absolutely no follow-up questions), film/music critic for Spectrum Culture and Co-Managing Editor of Comics Bulletin. Follow him on Twitter at @djeljosevic or find him somewhere in San Diego, often wearing a hat. Read his comic with Mike Prezzato, "Sgt. Death and his Metachromatic Men," over at Champion City Comics and check out his other comics at his Tumblr, Sequential Fuckery. His newest project is the webcomic The Ghost Engine, with artist Eric Zawadzki.

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