IRMA VEP A-
France (96 mi) 1996 d: Olivier Assayas
A student of art and literature who never went to film school, the son of a screenwriter, claiming he knew from an early age he would be a director, and a one-time film critic for Cahiers du Cinéma, Assayas’s interest in film, largely influenced by Robert Bresson, was how to express life through a collaborative process, through the experience of making a film, much of which develops on the set with a particular set of actors. IRMA VEP, a film about film itself, developed from a point when Assayas was questioning the value of cinema, questioning whether it was relevant at all, as at least at that point in time in his life, it appeared to be an age when a majority of people in the world could live entirely without art in their lives.
So IRMA VEP opens when a new film is frantically getting started, complete with all the energy, animosity, and chaos flying in all directions. Into this mayhem, the placidly beautiful Maggie Cheung arrives from China, fresh from some Hong Kong martial arts adventure. Much of the film is spoken in the neutral English language, which just about everyone knows, as she presumably doesn’t speak French. Jean-Pierre Léaud, a fixture in New Wave films as an adolescent, plays the grumpy, overly-plagued director, who has been forced to accept the terms of his production company which requires that he re-make Louis Feuillade’s silent film serial LES VAMPIRES (1915), one of the great glories of early French cinema and a favorite of the Surrealists, which featured a lead underworld catwoman burglar, Irma Vep, who seemed at the time to capture the mood and soul of Paris. So immediately the director looks outside France for his lead, searching for the purity and poetry of the original, but becomes helplessly bogged down in the detailed minutiae of modern day filmmaking, where he has to deal with the incessant criticism that a Chinese actress could hardly be worthy of such an iconic French role, to which he responds definitively, “Irma Vep is France!”
Perhaps Assayas’s only film comedy, it was written very quickly, in the space of about ten days, and filmed almost immediately after the point of conception in less than a month, where this is a film with very quick camera movements from Eric Gautier, much like painting’s brush strokes, as one might envision different images by moving your head, a short look here, a long look there, yet another glance, though in film, all could be realized in one shot, which adds a cinéma vérité, improvisational feel. Seen mostly through the eyes of a costume designer Zoë, Jacques Rivette regular Nathalie Richard, who unexpectedly escorts Maggie around town FF_Vep-2.mov YouTube (2:38), perhaps serving as the voice of Assayas in this film, and while overall, there’s a sense that everything is spinning out of control, there are also small sequences throughout which are simply flurries of brilliance, with exquisite use of music, as they successfully transcend the impossible trap set for the film’s director.
One thinks of a brief scene where the two female leads, French and Chinese, take a free and liberating ride through a miserably dark and forbidding Paris winter on a motorbike, while the audience hears guitar music from Mali’s Ali Farka Touré (“Soukora”) Ali Farka Toure - Soukora YouTube (6:07), or the film’s tour de force moment, a dreamlike sequence set to the music of Sonic Youth’s “Tunic” FF_Vep.mov YouTube (7:21) where Maggie inexplicably slinks out of her hotel room one night dressed in her latex all-body catwoman outfit, actually entering the hotel room of another distraught traveler (Arsinée Khanjian) and steals her jewelry, seen later slinking along the rooftops of Paris wearing latex and heels, on the rooftops YouTube (1:12). Something of a perpetual mystery, both in the original and in the Assayas remake, offering considerable confusion about fantasy and reality, or the power of dreams, with uncertainty and a lack of closure lingering throughout, the film has a brilliantly ironic closing sequence, which oddly enough reminds one of Rivette’s ending in LA BELLE NOISEUSE (1991), which also comically deals with some obsessional human eccentricities involved in creating art, but also movingly combines the worlds of silent cinema with the modernistic avant-garde in a glorious finale Irma Vep final YouTube (6:06).