| Eli Holm |
Irma Vep plays at the Trylon Cinema from Sunday, May 21 through Tuesday, May 23. Visit trylon.org for tickets and more information.
Some of the earliest films in the cinematic canon have acquired an elevated status; they’re put on a pedestal and deemed immortal pieces of art and influence. But I’m not here to talk about these products, I’m here to talk about the process. That’s what director Olivier Assayas does with his film Irma Vep; he knows the unimpeachable status of the serial Les Vampires (1915), but he’s here to show us the crew that is making or, in this case, remaking this work.
Les Vampires, directed by Louis Feuillade, is often cited as being one of the first films for entertainment; its blueprint model of simple storytelling and elevated formal trickery have landed the film an immortal status in influence and excellency. It’s cinema’s first blockbuster, with an easy-going plot and fun cast of characters, crazy set pieces, and melodrama—in short, it’s no wonder this became a touchstone in entertainment. So why remake it?
Well, in summary, Irma Vep is a film about remaking Les Vampires, but really only remaking it because the director likes the character Irma Vep.
Irma Vep is the mischievous female criminal in a gang of anarchists, a character defined by her theatrics and thrill, both a femme fatale and theatrical performer. In the remake, the filmmakers in Irma Vep try to define the character by her costume and looks, taking the exaggerated fun of the character and turning her into a sex symbol.
Irma Vep continuously critiques this line of thinking, calling out films that have no experimentation and joy of filmmaking and are instead sold as commercial products. There’s a key conversation about modern-age blockbusters and the reasoning studios give them. Batman Returns comes up throughout the film to criticize the blueprint nowadays of exaggeration without heart. Whereas Les Vampires experimented and defined the craft, the modern film landscape, with its homogenization under capitalism/consumer culture, has turned filmmaking into decoration without human foundation, expensive pieces of entertainment without formal experimentation, characters with interiority, or general passion expressed. The French directors of Irma Vep mask this with pretentious messaging towards the seriousness of French films, stating that France would never make a film as pointlessly extravagant and morally bankrupt as “American” films are. And yet, director Rene can’t give a reason for remaking this film besides his love for how Maggie Cheung looks and his desire to put her in Irma Vep’s signature catsuit.
Maggie Cheung (playing herself) is undefined in this film. She’s confused about why someone wants her for the role of Irma Vep, and she’s given no answers beyond the degrading male gaze Rene provides her. It’s clear she’s only there because Rene finds her hot. This begins the central conflict of the film. How can Maggie define herself in a world morphing her into a vision of desire?
Maggie Cheung is an actor who’s known at this time for primarily starring in Hong Kong action films, where experimentation runs wild; but in the eyes of a male executive and morally bankrupt filmmaker, they only see easy-profit filmmaking. And so Rene takes a person with passion for the craft and defines her through male desire, leaving Maggie lost and seeking reclamation as Maggie Cheung, not an object for fetishized filmmaking. Irma Vep is a journey towards definition, as Maggie, the crew, and the remake of Les Vampires try to define their selves in a society of homogenization under capitalism, where roles are assigned by the patriarchy and expected to be worked through in service of money and entertainment.
Maggie has little success finding herself, as the film offers only a fleeting moment of definition. In an iconic scene, Maggie, wearing the Irma Vep latex suit, is thrashing violently around her hotel, evoking a peak in her confusion. To try and leave this maddening state, she exits her room, sneaks into someone else’s, and steals a necklace. Here, the film blurs the line between Maggie Cheung and Irma Vep, as Maggie embodies Irma’s persona to try and reclaim a sense of self within the assigned role. The film shows a violent attempt at reclaiming oneself by succumbing to both the role as a job and as a character in an artistic setting. For a moment, Maggie understands herself as she takes the roles others have assigned to her in their vision and crafts her own story from it. But this moment passes, and Maggie’s reclamation ends with her dropping the necklace off a roof, with the stark contrast of the normal world crashing in. She’s late for work, and Zoe, her costume designer, is shaking her awake.
The day at work ensues. Maggie does an interview with a French newscaster, who instead of actually interviewing her morphs the conversation into his monologue, disregarding Maggie’s thoughts and using her as a visual stimulant of beauty. She is turned into an object once again, there to provide a visual for the tyrannical speech of a man spouting his views on Hong Kong cinema with little regard for the brilliance of it. It isn’t an interview, it’s a speech.
This thread of male-dominated thought in art continues, with the horrific scene in which the assistant director rehearses a scene with Maggie and uses the guise of a script to mentally dominate her. This scene emphasizes the ways art has been used to mask male power, adding to the larger theme of morally-bankrupt thought at the core of extravaganza. Before the scene can escalate physically, someone bursts into the room to reveal that Rene has quit the production and a new director has been hired.
The director is Jose Mirano, an egocentric, misinformed man who’s introduced speaking to a woman about replacing Maggie’s role. He can’t understand why anyone would hire a Chinese woman to play Irma Vep when, in the original, Irma Vep is a symbol of the underground of Paris, and that we must “stay faithful to this.” Of course, it comes across as racist and shows a clear misunderstanding as to why Irma Vep is successful as a character. It’s not that she’s a heightened metaphor for poverty and criminality, it’s that she’s an overexaggerated presence and likable antihero. Jose shows an unwillingness to change and understand how stories evolve, and this scene serves as one of the more persistent critiques the film holds in that we still see outraged fans hating on any choice that differs from the original when remaking art.
The next time we see Jose, he has fallen asleep watching Les Vampires.
The film’s finale is essentially its thesis, and provides a key to what makes Les Vampires an immortal piece of cinema. The crew gathers to watch the footage Rene has edited together before quitting. We learn that Maggie is off to New York to meet with director Ridley Scott and join his next film. It’s a sad ending for her in this story (in real life, she never actually worked with Scott), as it shows her being eaten up by Hollywood. That isn’t a critique of Scott’s work. Rather, the film uses him as a stand-in for Hollywood, indicating that, despite learning that she was uncomfortable with having definitions applied to her, Hollywood will place a role onto Maggie once again. It’s a cycle that will doom her until she quits playing within this system of role definition.
The lights dim, and all the confusion, the petty egos, the desires are thrown out the window. Finally, we see the edited footage of what was shot for Rene’s remake of Les Vampires. It’s exhilarating.
Drawing inspiration from Stan Brakhage’s Reflections on Black, the footage is an avant-garde take on redefining bodies onscreen. Scratchy lines and blurred textures disturb the images and turn them into a nightmare odyssey mirroring the original story. Like Brakhage’s film, the footage visualizes male violence and how it manifests in the world, where the boiling aggression exists beneath the surface and only shows in flashes of scratchy lines and blurred eyes, like it’s trying to escape its human-image counterparts. But even without these interpretations, the film recontextualizes how we see Rene. Despite our knowledge that he only wanted Maggie there to fetishize her, he seems to understand better than anyone what Les Vampires is: a monumental piece of innovative filmmaking and a key to developing cinema as an art form, pushing the boundaries of film and breathing new life into it. That’s how you remake it. Take a universal story and transgress the medium through which you’re telling it. Assayas references the new generation of filmmakers pushing cinema to new heights. With Brakhage’s experiments in visual form being placed onto the simple story of Les Vampires, it reminds us that the immortal pieces of cinema are ones that push boundaries and redefine the form. Despite the homogenization of filmmaking in the modern age, there will always be boundary-pushing artists redefining cinema and taking art to that immortal pedestal.
Edited by Olga Tchepikova-Treon