The New Cult Canon: Irma Vep

The New Cult Canon: Irma Vep

"It is visually beautiful, but the editing is so self-destructive that it's as if Hopper had slashed his own canvases." —Pauline Kael on Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie

After reading the quote above many years ago, I felt I had to see Dennis Hopper's The Last Movie immediately—not because it might be visually beautiful, but because I was excited to see an artist slash his own canvases. What possible impulse could lead a filmmaker to sabotage his own work? And what does a film wind up looking like when it's completely torn apart and we can see the pieces of a more conventionally "cohesive" work lying on the floor? It's a very punk-rock thing to do, but it's also what film critics do by trade—pick apart and examine all the individual pieces that go into the whole, and occasionally slash a few canvases when necessary.

Turns out I couldn't really abide The Last Movie—which was more just a mess than the purposeful mess I was hoping for—but in 1996, Olivier Assayas' Irma Vep brought out the knife and happily slashed away. In that respect and many others, the film is a true torchbearer of the French New Wave—playful, restless, full of invention, and born of an overwhelming discontent for the status quo. At a time of artistic crisis, when French cinema was in danger of losing its identity to popular American imports, Assayas issued Irma Vep as a wake-up call to an industry that was slipping into compromise and irrelevance. Much like our Graham Greene-inspired friend Donnie Darko, when he floods the school and burns Patrick Swayze's house down, Assayas performed an act of creation by destruction. He also made film criticism seem sexy—which, as one of the pasty-faced legions who make a living from it, I can respect as no mean feat.

At the center of the movie—and a movie this scatterbrained needs a strong center—is Maggie Cheung, one of the world's most glamorous stars, playing herself. (Assayas later married her, temporarily cementing his status as the world's hippest film director. They divorced three years later, but it was amicable enough for Assayas to cast her as a Courtney Love/Yoko Ono type in 2004's Clean.) When we first see Cheung, she's stepped into the middle of a French production office and nobody seems to notice, which is just the first sign of how terminally chaotic the industry has become. No one picked her up at the airport and no one seems to even expect her, even though she's been chosen to play the lead role in a production slated to shoot imminently. She tries to apologize for being three weeks late, due to overruns on her latest Hong Kong film, but who would know to accept her apology?

Cheung has been cast as the lead in a remake of Les Vampires, Louis Feuillade's landmark 10-part serial from 1915 about a devious villainess who leads an underground thieving operation called The Vampire Gang, and steals jewels while wearing a form-fitting black catsuit. To most, it's a baffling choice to cast a Chinese actress in a role so quintessentially Parisian, but then again, there's nothing that looks wrong about Maggie Cheung in a latex catsuit. The director, René Vidal, is well past his prime; and since he's played by Jean-Pierre Léaud—the legendary Antoine Doinel from François Truffaut classics like The 400 Blows and Stolen Kisses—we can probably assume that he's a creatively stilted New Wave holdover. Whatever the case, René can't really come up with a coherent reason for remaking Les Vampires, but he tells Maggie that he saw her martial-arts film The Heroic Trio in Marrakech, and he hired her because she looked like a dancer. (Poor Maggie then has to give Réne the bum news that all those action sequences were really done by stunt doubles.)

And so it goes. Shooting doesn't go well. The one scene we do see get filmed in the movie-within-a-movie gets ruined by the actors cracking up… for the 24th take in a row. Réne storms out of dailies, raging about how his movie is "shit," and has a nervous breakdown. Meanwhile, wardrobe assistant Zoé, played with winning hyperactive charm by Nathalie Richard, develops a crush on Maggie, who doesn't pick up on her advances. Both Réne and Zoé project their fantasies onto her—and who can blame them?—but Maggie doesn't fit comfortably into the roles they want to her to play. If there's one word to describe Maggie's odyssey in France, it's awkward: Having to deal with the language barrier is one thing (she speaks English, but no French) and feeling alienated in a foreign land is another, but more than that, she's thrown in the middle of other people's crippling dysfunction. It's a wonder she doesn't catch the next flight out of De Gaulle at any moment.

There are innumerable great touches, big and small, in Irma Vep, which is organic and alive like few movies ever are. (It was shot on the fly in three weeks, and the spontaneity shows.) But the one sequence that everyone who's seen the film remembers is a restless Maggie slipping into her catsuit after hours and skulking around the hotel like Irma Vep in the movie. Only this time, she embodies the role effortlessly—she's sexy, mysterious, resourceful, and liberated in a way that she couldn't have been in Réne's stale, pointless remake. Here's the beginning of the sequence, set to Sonic Youth's "Tunic (Song For Karen)." (Assayas employed Sonic Youth again six years later to do the music for Demonlover, another potential NCC entry.)

The sequence continues with Maggie getting even further into character by stealing a woman's jewels—that woman, incidentally, is Arsinée Khanjian, a.k.a. Mrs. Atom Egoyan—and making a daring rooftop escape. The contrast between the pointless movie-within-a-movie and Assayas' exhilarating staging tells the story: As Zoé puts it earlier in the movie, "Why do we do what's already been done? Why don't we do more personal films?" Casting Maggie Cheung in a Les Vampires remake is stale and senseless, but setting her loose on the rooftops of Paris gives the film a charge that's owed entirely to Assayas' personal and original way of reinterpreting a French cinematic icon.

Irma Vep was made not long after Luc Besson's La Femme Nikita opened up new doors for a newly created brand of slick, Hollywood-inspired commercial French cinema. The New Yorker dismissed Nikita at the time as the death of French cinema, or something to that effect, and while it seemed hyperbolic at the time, it was also prescient. Directors like Besson and his many minions, Mathieu Kassovitz (Hate, The Crimson Rivers), Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie), and others have since created a French industry that makes films expensive and commercially savvy enough to compete with Hollywood imports, and they don't really give a shit what the naysayers think. When I interviewed Jeunet in 2001, he said, "We have a new generation of filmmakers in France that try to do something for the audience, and the audience appreciates it. For the first time, the box office is much better for French films than American films."

Okay, now keep in mind what Jeunet said and enjoy this hilarious exchange:

The interviewer is a more officious character, but the thrust of his argument is pretty much the same as Jeunet's, isn't it? At least in part, Cheung's character comes to Paris to escape the sort of cinema the interviewer is blathering on about. In the mid-'90s, Hong Kong was one of the world's hotspots for commercial fare, and the industry turned out hits (and sequels to hits) as reliably as any region in the world. One of the funniest things about Irma Vep is Maggie's sheer bafflement in the face of French inefficiency and self-doubt. Yet there's another side to a smooth-running machine like Hong Kong's, too, which is that all the movies look the same. Assayas doesn't care for either system, and Irma Vep triumphantly points the way to another alternative.

Coming up:

Next week: Miami Blues

March 20: Babe: Pig In The City

March 27: They Live

In April: "Cult On The Cheap" month, featuring Clerks, El Mariachi, Primer, and The Blair Witch Project. Are they worth the pittance expended on them?

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