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May 22, 2018

Irma Vep

maggie irma.jpg

Olivier Assayas - 1996
Arrow Academy BD Region B

Roughly twenty years since I had seen Irma Vep, on a much smaller television screen in the VHS version. Since that time, I have seen most of Assayas' films as well as a good chunk of films starring Maggie Cheung. In her 2003 interview, one of the supplements here, Cheung mentions that a viewer can enjoy Irma Vep simply as a comedy. But as others have noted, Irma Vep is Assayas' love letter to Cheung and the process of filmmaking.

The story as such is about a middle-aged director, Rene Vidal, well past his career peak, entrusted to remake the 1915 silent serial, The Vampires as a television feature film. Having seen Maggie Cheung in The Heroic Trio, Vidal decides her abilities as a female action star are what is needed to play the role of Irma Vep. The character's name is an anagram for vampire, the the vampires are actually a gang of thieves dress entirely in black. What narrative there is follows the backstage shenanigans and back-biting of members of the production crew as well as the catastrophic attempts at reviving a silent classic.

What struck me was how Irma Vep stands as a response to the currently hot debate about so-called cultural appropriation. Besides the various film references seen and spoken of within the film are others that appear in retrospect. A more perfect version of Irma Vep might have simultaneous annotation. In any event, my revisiting the film set off the kind of tangents familiar to the more hard corp cinephile.

It probably wasn't intended that way but using a clip by Johnny To, of all the film Hong Kong directors Maggie Cheung worked with, is perfect. As is known now, To has expressed his admiration for director Jean-Pierre Melville, a French filmmaker who adopted the surname of the American author of Moby Dick. To even tried to get Alain Delon to revive his character of Jef Costello, from Melville's Le Samourai, eventually settling for French pop star and actor Johnny Hallyday. Thanks to the greater availability of international films on the home video market, this dialogue of East and West is much easier to acknowledge.

Which brings me to the scene where Maggie Cheung is interviewed by a journalist who views cinema as a dichotomy between French art house and Hollywood action films. His only frame of reference to Hong Kong cinema is John Woo. In one of the other supplements from 2003, Assayas is critical of his character limiting his knowledge of Hong Kong cinema to one director. To which I say, lighten up Olivier! I kind of take this personally because the first Hong Kong film I ever saw was a midnight screening of Woo's The Killers. And maybe something was lost in the translation of that interview with Assayas and Charles Tesson, but serious film scholarship often begins in the middle, depending on the history of the filmmaker in question, going backwards as well as forwards, not only with the filmmaker in question, but peers and influences. On a somewhat related note, it was the Criterion Collection supplement to In the Mood for Love, with Wong Kar-wai discussing the films he watched when he was younger, that set me on the path to collecting several films starring Grace Chang from the 1950s.

Assayas and Tesson wrote about Hong Kong cinema for Cahiers du Cinema back in 1984, when Hong Kong cinema was virtually unknown and considered unworthy serious study. At the time of their interview in 2003, that had changed. What I found curious is that there was no mention of Luc Besson and his hybrid productions. Thanks to Besson, French filmmakers have proven to be as capable of making full-throttle action films as good, or often better than Hollywood. Additionally, Assayas and Tesson do not indicate awareness that Besson took a Chinese action star, Jet Li, placing him in Paris, in the English language Kiss of the Dragon. Not only was Hong Kong cinema better known in France, but it was now part of international film productions aimed for the global market.

I watched the blu-ray a second time with the subtitles turned off while listening to the commentary track by Assayas and critic Jean-Michel Frodon. Actually the track is their dialogue with an audience mostly discussing Assayas' career rather that one specifically about Irma Vep. That dialogue runs out before the film ends. But it was with delight watching the facial expressions of Nathalie Boutefeu, as Maggie Cheung's stunt double. In the scene, she tries to explain to the replacement director why Rene Vidal chose a Chinese actress in a role considered iconically French.

Finally, there's the use of the song, "Bonnie and Clyde" by Serge Gainsbourg. The song is really about the characters as embodied by Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, not their less photogenic real-life counterparts. And as is well known, the film was once intended to be directed by either Francois Truffaut or Jean-Luc Godard. There is no cultural appropriation. I see it as a continuing international dialogue. Can't stop. Won't stop.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at May 22, 2018 09:45 AM