Irma Vep Review
Many former critics at influential French journal Cahiers du Cinéma have gone on to become celebrated filmmakers in their own right. But whereas the magazine’s original contributors went on to become the most prominent French filmmakers of their generation, establishing the French New Wave in the process, directors who got their big break via the magazine much later on tended to have a hard time being recognised outside of the influence of their critical predecessors. In the strange case of director Olivier Assayas, there was a different problem altogether - his narrative features were largely examinations of the areas of film he was interested in at any given moment, acting as feature length extensions of his cultural criticism.
In his more recent films, Assayas has channelled his critiques of art into recognisably human character dramas (from the YA franchise recreations in Clouds of Sils Maria, to the period ghost stories viewed by Kristen Stewart’s character in Personal Shopper), but his older efforts are more overtly analytical when it comes to the discussions of our relationship with the medium at any given moment. This was pushed to breaking point by his 1996 film Irma Vep, which even in its compact 97 minute running time, still feels like a sprawling thesis on the state of the French film industry, the agency of actresses in relation to the auteurs they work with, and popular culture’s reliance on remaking the works of the past. It’s easy to see why many think this is the director’s masterpiece. For me, it felt like a film suspended in a particular moment for the film industry - one too emotionally detached to have stood the test of time alongside the director’s more involving later efforts.
Maggie Cheung plays a lightly fictionalised version of herself, who has been hired by a pretentious French filmmaker (Jean-Pierre Léaud) to star in the lead role of his reimagining of silent film serial Les Vampires. Upon arriving in Paris, she is placed immediately on the defensive by crew members and journalists confused as to why she would want to star in a film from a director considered to be something of an irrelevance and - when she’s not facing scrutiny for that - spending most of her time dressed in a latex catsuit leads to her getting unexpected romantic attention from various crew members.
The film is light on plot, but dense with analytical themes that can be analysed in a number of ways. It’s a hard film to truly comprehend on first viewing, as the film seems to walk the unusual tightrope of being a critique of the French film industry during the nineties, as well as playing out like the stereotypical pretentious affair the director within the film is repeatedly called out for making. Assayas described the film in interviews as merely being a “comedy about brilliance, and how we react when we’re in the presence of it”. As an entry point to understanding the film, this makes sense but it’s impossible for Irma Vep to be viewed solely in this manner, divorced of the wider context. It’s a film that I imagine will prove alienating for those without an interest in film criticism, heightened only by a passage of time that has left the conversations within this film ever so slightly outdated.
Which isn’t to say there isn’t a playful spirit within Irma Vep; Cheung’s performance is perfectly calibrated to feel naïve, even as events continue to prove she has the more commanding presence in the room at all times. A central heist sequence, that adds a surreal touch to the behind-the-scenes drama, effectively blends the film we’re seeing and the film within the film, a meta touch that is pushed to breaking point by the experimental final scene - a glimpse of the film we’ve witnessed being made - and also a damning vision of independent cinema pushing itself beyond extraction, justifying the audience indifference. It’s hard not to feel the same way about the film itself: a boundary pushing work of genius that is close to impossible to invest in emotionally.
Bonus Features: If you need help comprehending the dense themes within Irma Vep, then the extras on the Arrow rerelease aren’t going to help you. In lieu of a conventional commentary, we instead get the audio of a 2007 Q&A Assayas did to support his film Boarding Gate that sees him discuss various notable sequences from his filmography - and it’s a long time before Irma Vep comes up in the conversation. Why this audio has been used as a commentary track on the film itself is baffling.
There’s also some rough behind-the-scenes footage, and some illuminating interviews from an earlier release of the DVD - where the highlight proves to be Assayas talking about spending time in Hong Kong back in the 80s, as part of a piece for Cahiers du Cinema.