Irma Vep is very much a movie of its moment. Released in 1996, Olivier Assayas’ freeform metafictional experiment captures the intersection of independent film, the old guard that inspired it, and the very hip Hong Kong cinema that was just finding its way into the international mainstream.
The story centers around a past-sell-by-date French film director (played by New Wave-legend Jean-Pierre Léaud), who has been tasked with remaking the silent film Les vampires, an epic-length crime serial that, lest you get it twisted, did not feature actual bloodsucking monsters. Rather, the Vampires of the title are an organization wreaking havoc upon Paris circa 1915. The face of this criminal revolution is a femme fatale named Irma Vep. I can likely do no better at describing her as I did in my 2012 write-up of Louis Feuillade’s original:
“Of all the varied elements of Les vampires, the facet that has found a permanent place in pop culture is Irma Vep. The name is an anagram for ‘vampire,’ and she is both a cabaret performer and the top lady crook in the Vampires organization. Played by one-named actress Musidora, Irma Vep came to embody the image of the vamp, a particular kind of femme fatale--though vamping also means to play up certain seductive traits, to exaggerate one's own sense of desirability, much as Musidora does in the film. Her black body suit…would inspire many larger-than-life ladies that followed, fictional and otherwise, and the character would be paid homage in other movies, on album covers, and, of course, comic books.”
Léaud sees no purchase in casting a French woman in the Irma Vep role, as it would be impossible to replace Musidora, so he looks outward and finds Maggie Cheung, who at that point had starred in a couple of Wong Kar-Wai movies, but was also known for parts in action flicks and superpowered genre pieces like The Heroic Trio, a scene of which is featured here. Cheung is playing herself amongst a fictional film crew, a stranger in a strange land, a Hong Kong native who speaks no French, and one of the only people of color on the set.
What Assayas unravels here is a narrative of the difficulties of making a movie, and the pull between art and commerce. Staff complains because Léaud’s character is a tyrant that doesn’t have it anymore, yet they treat their own positions very much like a job. They decry American movies like Batman Returns while doing a remake of what is very much a superhero/villain ancestor, fiddling over the details of their particular fiefdom. All the while not really noticing their lead actress or engaging with her. In the opening scenes, she is very much an object to be talked around, the language barrier used to emphasize she is a necessary nuisance, as if she is somehow to blame for their woes because her role in a prior film production went overtime and caused delays. You almost hope that 90 minutes later she’ll reveal she spoke French all along.
Assayas gets to have his cake and eat it too with Irma Vep, paying homage to past masters while dissecting and satirizing them, using their innovations to see if he can make something new while also shielding himself with nostalgia. Modern viewers have the added layer of knowing that he would marry Cheung two years later and so Irma Vep celebrating her beauty and abilities is almost like an elaborate love letter*. For her part, we see Cheung in a way we don’t get to that often: completely free to be natural, playing herself with little guard or obvious technique.
The real breakthrough for the character of Maggie is when she puts on her vinyl costume and runs around as Irma, engaging in free expression. It allows her to find the soul in what her director sees as soulless, to find herself within the symbol of Irma Vep. (And soundtracked by Sonic Youth, no less.) This is what all the artists seek, what Assayas sought, what the French New Wave pursued, what the indie scene of the times was after: space to just be. Irma Vep is at its best when it eschews convention and structure and simply is. The lack of freedom in the fictional project crushes the onscreen director; whereas the unmooring in Irma Vep liberates the real-world auteur.
There is an inherent irony to there being so much drama on-set while making a film that everyone says is bereft of the same. Assayas is having a grand old time satirizing the self-involved French film scene and the ability of its participants to puff it up and deflate it all in the same breath. One of the more pointed scenes takes aim at the critics and journalists obsessed with intellectualizing the “poetry” of John Woo while complaining filmmakers like Léaud have ruined cinema precisely because they intellectualize everything. All the while, he’s another that ignores Maggie and what she has to say, she’s merely there to reflect his own ideas.
Which makes it fitting that Maggie Cheung has the ultimate revenge, appearing by herself in the closing, fully in character, the belief that she has something more and better to go to after this. Of all the cast and crew, she’s the one who had a real experience and thus can climb out of the mess they’ve made.
Irma Vep has aged better than I expected. I didn’t rate it much back in the day, it seemed slight. I guess years of seeing creative endeavors get sloppy myself has increased my ability to access what Olivier Assayas has put together. Now I find Irma Vep hilarious and sad and exciting. Like Maggie Cheung, the viewer can stand apart from it all and just let it happen, and thrill at the prospect of rising above.
* Similarly, check the second disc of the Criterion edition of Irma Vep for the short Man Yuk: A Portrait of Maggie Cheung that Olivier Assayas put together a year later. It’s a collage tribute to his love, with the fact that it’s completely silent indicating that Assayas maybe was closer to his made-up filmmaker in Irma Vep than was immediately apparent.