Irma Vep (1996) is a matryoshka of a film, one built of nested meanings with a black vinyl doll at its center. It’s a tribute to Louis Feuillade’s 1915 classic, Les vampires, a brief history of French cinema, and a meditation on various degrees of crime. But Olivier Assayas’ cult hit is also a treatment of drama both artistic and interpersonal—a condemnation of our preference for hollow histrionics over still honesty, onscreen and off. Assayas has drawn a paradox: a criticism and a celebration of French cinema and the problematic passions of its individual creators.
The film takes place—all self-reflexive-like—on and around the set of a remake of Feuillade’s silent movie, where the director and most of the crew are given to hyperbolic fits that displace the truth at the heart of the matter. A movie set is the perfect zone to showcase egomania, and it’s also a milieu Assayas knows like the back of his hand, having been raised in the industry by a director father. He’s familiar with the way said industry inspires overreactions. If only those overreactions were confined to the studio, or at least to the stresses of the task at hand; Irma Vep suggests they’ve begun to hijack France’s artistic products, leaving no room for variety, never mind insight.
The Les vampires set is ground zero for drama-bombs whose shockwaves travel through cities and cultures but, thanks to Assayas’ precision irony, the figure at the center of the turbulence remains nobly calm. Maggie Cheung plays herself, a Hong Kong action star who catches a French director’s eye with her grace and wins the lead in his modern-silent remake. René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud) pays lip service to subtlety—commanding actors to play down body language and facial expression in his fin-de-siècle experiment—but he obsesses himself into a nervous breakdown, and the only stillness he finds comes in the form of a sedative. Vidal leads a company of hysterics embodied most memorably in Zoé (Nathalie Richard), a Horrocksian costumer eternally at war with the rumor-mongering Maïté (Dominique Faysse). Even Maggie’s Every-Gaul interviewer prefers the drama of American action movies to anything served up by his domestic cinema, which he accuses of inert navel-gazing. Maggie absorbs it all with professional congeniality that starts and hitches a little when the barrages hit full bore, but she never cracks in the presence of others. Instead, she finds a secret outlet in cat-burglary.
Those shots of Maggie slinking over rooftops in damp black rubber aren’t just included for their aesthetic value. Assayas is playing with the old trope of actor-seduced-by-role, giving Maggie space to take on aspects of Irma Vep’s criminality as well as her seductive vamping. But the collapsing of the two Irmas into one isn’t really what this movie is about, nor is it half as entertaining as Maggie’s first(?) theft. The meaning of the two Irmas is manifold—and still much discussed 13 years on—and it tends to overshadow the robbery scene itself, a distillation of the way Maggie navigates the treacherous waters of other people’s meltdowns. That is, even her fellow hotel guests are drawn into the dramatic storm—a naked Arsinée Khanjian, in this case, railing at the lover who’s left her stagnating in Paris. Maggie squeaks rather than sneaks into her victim’s hotel room and filches a necklace unnoticed thanks to the self-absorbed mistress’ carefully constructed pique. Khanjian’s character, like Vidal and his associates, is punished for her tantrum. Stripped of clothes and back story, the anxious American at the structural center of the movie adopts the role of the ur-drama queen who—in tandem with the vampiric images put before our eyes—drains those around her of vital (moral and creative) energy.
Irma Vep is, by design, terribly Gallic in places—you could mute the film’s sound and still grasp proceedings. Assayas directed his compatriots to exploit the stereotypes of nation and profession, concocting a stew of emotions that plays visually as well as vocally. Events are a license for Bacchanalian expression that climaxes at a dinner party, where guests enfold themselves in the intensity of their own opinions and self-satisfaction. A hand-held camera doesn’t just capture the activity that whirls around Maggie, it aggravates it. On set, characters are harried and edgy; off set, they seek whatever excitement they can: unrequited lust, domestic disturbances, even the artificial vitality of nightclubs. The restlessness of these characters is artistic, sexual, and professional, and even Maggie’s stealthy night ventures are less than silent and framed by thunderstorms.
There isn’t enough energy in the universe to sustain this company, or at least its director, whose center cannot hold. Vidal’s post-breakdown replacement, José Morano (Lou Castel) may appear monastic and unflappable, but even he reveals a love for needless sabotage when he schemes to replace la chinoise with her French co-star (Nathalie Boutefeu). He’s no match for the original director, however, whose need for intensity erupts, despite pretensions, and literally overwrites the purportedly subtle project he tried to get off the ground. When Morano reviews Vidal’s dailies, he finds the stock has been rotoscoped with hectic, abstract lines of motion, accompanied by bursts of obnoxious, abstract sound. These aren’t just the scribbles of a director on the verge of a nervous breakdown, but of a thoughtful artist no longer. Honest stillness hasn’t got a chance when even its so-called purveyors have lost their touch.
Ranylt Richildis, a one-time reviewer for Pajiba, sees too few films these days. She’s working on two massive academic studies (because she’s crazy) and squeezing out the odd short story (because: delinquent). Her reviews and retrospectives can be found here.