PRINT May 1997


Irma Vep

FROM THE OUTSET, Olivier Assayas’ breakneck behind-the-camera satire Irma Vep immerses the viewer in the heady desperation of moviemaking. The first shot slowly pans over fresh-faced production assistants blithely hustling investors and creditors with phone solicitations worthy of seasoned bunco artists. Enter cheerfully self-effacing Hong Kong superstar Maggie Cheung as herself; she has arrived to play the title role of a latex-encased femme fatale in a projected remake of Louis Feuillade’s legendary proto-Surrealist 1916 serial Les vampires. This is ironic inasmuch as virtually everyone involved in the ill-fated undertaking descends on her in a frenzy of need, ego, and desire.

Although hand-held camera work gives Irma Vep the look of cinema verité, the film flows with the seamless speed and panache of Hong Kong fantasy flicks. Maggie Cheung is someone at home in both worlds: her work has spanned Stanley Kwan’s exquisitely nuanced 1992 The Actress (a biography of a ’30s Chinese film legend that mixes tragedy and documentary) and Johnny To/Ching Siu Tung’s sublimely demented 1993 adventure The Heroic Trio. Indeed one of the most electrifying moments in Irma Vep is when Assayas abruptly cuts away from Cheung getting in a car to a Heroic Trio clip—replete with flying bullets being sliced in half by ninja daggers. Blending the mundane with the ever-so-slightly hallucinatory, Assayas’ meditation on cinema-as-cabin-fever is both a send-up of and homage to the romantic mythology of auteurism. The smitten film director who shows Cheung this video snippet of herself (even as she protests a stunt-double was used) is played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, whose status as nouvelle vague icon lends yet another layer of association to a picture full of echoes from new waves gone by.

Because Assayas began as a critic for Cahiers du Cinema (like Truffaut and Godard more than two decades before him), and because Irma Vep (his sixth and best film) is so steeped in allusions, it’s easy to make too much of all this. As tempting as it is to compare Irma Vep to Truffaut’s Day for Night, the latter is at best a point of departure—a set of chords on which to improvise a series of polyrhythmic riffs. In Irma Vep, Assayas distills a whole panoply of reference points into an entirely personal sensibility: the shifts from one tone to another, from one reality to another, touchingly incongruous. Léaud’s querulous, touchingly burnt-out René Vidal—a director working himself up to a nervous breakdown—tries explaining to Maggie the poetic affinity he sees between Feuillade’s film and The Heroic Trio. “Very, very beautiful,” he stammers about her duel there, “like floating in the air.” But Assayas’ style brings that otherworldly quality down to earth without sacrificing its supernal allure. His technique is as lithe and taut as the moves Muhammad Ali favored: “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” (Irma Vep also ought to prompt attention to Cheung’s neglected HK oeuvre, not only for The Actress and the atmospheric Days of Being Wild, but such inspired pop-cult fare as the nuttily erotic Green Snake, and the gloriously satisfying East-meets-Western Dragon Inn.)

Though none of Assayas’ previous films have been released here, they constitute a fascinating body of work (or considering their provisional, exploratory nature, perhaps work-in-progress). Assayas’ 1986 debut Désordre (Disorder) was a doomed but somehow engaging marriage of Dostoyevsky and the postpunk scene (band members kill a music shop owner while stealing equipment and suffer the metaphysical fallout in a veritable “Crime and Joy Division”). L’enfant de l’hiver (Winter’s child, 1989) made the chilly best of a masochistic scenario, but Paris s’éveille (Paris at dawn, 1991) was a leap forward, displaying a sense of life in all its mercurial, unforeseen contingency. Though 1993’s Une nouvelle vie (A new life) has been called “the purest expression of his aesthetic,” it seems to me, despite its visual brilliance and formal daring, the most unconvincing thing Assayas has done—a relentlessly minimalist exercise that renders Bergmanesque alienation as ambient imagery. (It must be noted that the figures in Assayas’ Une nouvelle vie are no less one-dimensional than those of the average Jackie Chan flick; they just inhabit a more esoteric dimension, that art-house never-never land where you can always rely on characters taking the most self-defeating path.)

The 1994 made-for-television L’eau froide (Cold water) is the antithesis of all that: at once a beautifully observed study of teenage frustration and an allegory of blocked revolt, it contains a magnificently sustained twenty-minute reverie that both dissolves and apotheosizes its narrative. A teenager recites Allen Ginsberg’s “Wichita Vortex Sutra” as he sets out through the forest to a party at an abandoned house; unbeknownst to him, his girl (who has escaped from a mental institution) is already there, coming unglued. He finds her, and the camera tracks their wary reconciliation as record after record plays, from Leonard Cohen to Alice Cooper, waves of indelibly charged yearning rolling across the nocturnal landscapes. There’s never been a better use of rock as both history and mythology: Creedence Clearwater’s “Up Around the Bend” plays as kids dance around a bonfire, then without warning the needle is yanked off the record—the silence is gut-wrenching, a black hole devouring the light. It’s an intensely realistic moment and yet utterly phantasmagorical, as if John Fogerty’s guitar had single-handedly transported the youthful rebellion of Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite to the Halloween revels of Meet Me in St. Louis.

In Irma Vep, there’s a scene where a Neanderthal interviewer tries to browbeat Maggie Cheung into saying that the art cinema of people like René Vidal is finished, kaput; he crows over the master-race of action heroes (Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme) that takes movies back to the stone age. But I don’t know that cinéastes should take too much comfort in Assayas’ satire. While he regards Léaud’s Vidal with rueful tenderness, Vidal’s replacement is a nightmare. Played by Lou Castel, the project’s new director suggests a couch-potato hybrid of two Marcos: Ferreri and Bellocchio. His boorishness reminds us of the gap between cinema’s lofty rhetoric and often venal motives (the medium’s line between artist and bullshit artist is a fine one indeed). And the presence of Maggie Cheung points up the error too many serious film enthusiasts make: dividing art and entertainment into the same hopelessly neat either/or compartments as the imbecile journalist who badgers her.

As Assayas’ movie progresses, the production disintegrates, events and emotions spiraling out of control. Cheung alone retains a sense of distance and proportion; those orbiting her lose themselves in individual fantasies of “Irma” (when Maggie is fitted for her catwoman costume in the back of an S/M lingerie shop, the fetishized nature of the character’s mystique couldn’t be more hilariously evident). An alchemy of cultural collision is at work here: Cheung—speaking English in a charming, vaguely working-class British accent—is a lonely voice of pragmatism and compassion amid a deluge of French absolutism, intransigence, and self-absorption, a flood of projection that inexorably casts her as the phantom of backstage soap opera and cinephile longing alike. (Nathalie Richard as the lovesick costume designer gigglingly refers to Maggie/Irma as “A plastic toy.”)

At one point in Irma Vep, the film crew half nostalgically, half derisively watches a video of some post-’68 Marxist agitprop they once made: “Cinema is not magic” goes a slogan there. But in linking Feuillade and Maggie Cheung, Assayas reactivates all the abandoned possibilities of film, magical and theoretical alike. In an extraordinary passage, Cheung listens to Sonic Youth in her hotel room in full cat-suit regalia. Soon she’s prowling the hallway and sneaking into another woman’s room; she has fallen into the dream of Irma. Stealing some jewels, she makes her escape onto the rain-drenched rooftop (which for good measure is lit like the climax of The Heroic Trio): in an ineffably perfect gesture, she tosses the jewels over the side of the building like so much stardust. The beauty of Irma Vep is that, in the same breath, it shows the impasse cinema has reached and points the way out.

Howard Hampton writes frequently for Artforum and Film Comment. Most recently, he was included in Fredric Dannen’s forthcoming Hong Kong Cinema (Miramax Books).