Thursday, January 1, 2009

IRMA VEP (1996)

Here's another recent acquisition for the Albany Public Library. This is Olivier Assayas's cinematic reflection on the power of images and how they reflect one another. Rene Vidal, an aging director(played by New Wave star Jean-Pierre Leaud), having just watched real-life Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung in the movie Heroic Trio, decides to cast her in his remake of the pioneering French serial Les Vampires in the crucial role of Irma Vep (rearrange the letters). Cheung knows not a scrap of French, but fortunately many French film people speak English, making this in effect a bilingual film. Many people consider the director a has-been. An interviewer tells Cheung that he's one of the "nombril" (i.e. navel-gazing) intellectual directors who killed the French film industry by making films of interest to themselves alone without considering the public. She defends the director, insisting that there should be room for films of all kinds, but Les Vampires is a troubled production, in part because the director is taking a very personal, intellectual approach to the material. For whatever reason, he seems to be insisting on a Gus Van Sant - style shot-for-shot remake, and discourages efforts by the actors to more fully dramatize their performances compared to Louis Feuillade's fairly static original. The director is unhappy with the rushes and tells Cheung that he doesn't really find Irma Vep interesting because the character and the story are entirely superficial. Meanwhile, Cheung starts having dreams in character where she stalks through a hotel in her latex catsuit (Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman costume is an explicit model, and some characters take mild swipes at the Batman franchise), while a female costume designer develops a crush on Cheung only to have it ruined by gossipy friends. Finally, the director gives up and is replaced by a sleazy fellow who immediately replaces Cheung, convinced that Irma Vep must be played by a French actress. At the end, we see the footage that the original director had actually assembled and edited in a vain attempt to turn the project into a personal work of art.

Irma Vep is all about obsession. Assaysas ended up marrying Maggie Cheung, but it didn't last, but they've made another highly regarded film, Clean, since their break-up. But the movie begs the question of the object of obsession and whether obsession really engages with reality beneath an attractive surface. But if it pursues a notion of reality it chases its own tail. People interact with Maggie Cheung based on an image derived from her early movies, but they're presumably dealing with the real actress, except that "Maggie Cheung" is a character played by Maggie Cheung herself, and who's to say that we're seeing the real person on screen, rather than a kind of icon? And what can they know about her? Zoe the costume designer gets the idea that Cheung might like girls from the way she seems to enjoy wearing the catsuit -- quite a leap if you think about it a second. And what's the point of turning her into Irma Vep? Both the real/fictional Cheung and the fictional Vep (the director pronounces it "Wep") are symbols, and Cheung is further clothed in symbolism by the invocation of Tim Burton's Catwoman as a visual model for her version of Irma Vep. The filmmakers are pursuing significance in repetition, but the question dogs them every step of the way: why remake Les Vampires? Why cast Maggie Cheung? The director feels a compulsion he ultimately can't justify and finally reduces his unfinished version to a freakishly personal statement of obsession that is more of a museum piece than anything like a commercially viable project. Because this is an "intellectual" film in the tradition the interviewer disparages, it leaves questions for viewers to figure out for themselves. If you leave the film wondering what the point was, for once that seems to be the intended result. If you can accept that, and if the notion of Maggie Cheung in a catsuit is at least superficially attractive, you might give Irma Vep a shot.
Here are some background materials. First, a clip from an episode of Les Vampires, featuring the original Irma Vep, Musidora, in action.

Next, something from The Heroic Trio, spotlighting Maggie Cheung. As viewers of Irma Vep will learn, Cheung has an English accent from being raised in the UK, as opposed to the American voice dubbed in here.

This is a French trailer for the movie, so it's something Olivier Assayas may have seen.

And now, Irma Vep itself. In this scene, the director plays a clip from Heroic Trio for Maggie Cheung and begins to explain his motivations for his project.

And here's the trailer, in which you hear Cheung's actual voice and see more clips from both Heroic Trio and Les Vampires.

Be warned, however: these are pieces of a necessarily incomplete puzzle. Fit them together and they form a shape of some sort. Make of it what you will.

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