Criterion Prediction #154: Irma Vep, by Alexander Miller
Title: Irma Vep
Director: Olivier Assayas
Cast: Maggie Cheung, Jean Pierre-Leaud, Antoine Basler, Nathalie Richard, Alex Descas
Synopsis: Hong Kong superstar Maggie Cheung travels to France to star in a revised interpretation of Feuillade’s Les Vampires only to run into a troubled production.
Critique: Assayas is one of those creative minds that operates about five paces ahead of everyone else, even himself. He’s even said that when he directs, “he likes to feel like he is creatively out of control,” and that apparent incongruity is what makes his collective body of work so indelible to date. Like the director’s best (Personal Shopper, Demonlover, and Cold Water, to name a few) Irma Vep has that steadily sporadic sense of uncertainty. The camera is always moving, intuitively flowing with the action, characters exchange dialogue with a punchy sense of vibrancy; we can envisage what’s next and where things will go but with an Assayas film that’s nearly impossible. And the narrative plays with us to a point of subtle manipulation, but Assayas’ craftily delicate hands it all unfurls with exuberant confidence. While every hip director has made their meta savvy, self-deprecating, “Hey, look at the crazy world of moviemaking” movie, Irma Vep is far more than a stylish in-joke. Fellini and Woody Allen made 8 ½, (well, Allen called it Stardust Memories). There’s also Minelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful, Godard’s Contempt, and Truffaut’s Day for Night. However Assayas eschews cathartic discord with Irma Vep, it doesn’t have the relative spite for the craft that lingers in the air of his predecessors, nor does it feel like a product of artistic relief. Irma Vep might fall into this informal subgenre, but Assayas’ direction is far more playful, enabling the narrative to open up and breathe more freely as we’re not compelled to play referential connect-the-dots with the characters and who they represent. Maggie Cheung plays herself, and it feels like the narrative and characters are their own creations, if anything Irma Vep shows the possibilities that a more open, and international cinema could yield.
It feels like the film is saying, “Why not have a Chinese actress bring a French classic to life?”
Irma Vep answers that question as it simultaneously becomes Les Vampires in its own sly structure that only Assayas could execute.
But instead, Maggie Cheung’s character is inevitably met with prejudice and closed-minded movie brass who, unlike Assayas, don’t understand that art without restrictions is the best kind.
Assayas will always be the most optimistic director who utilizes the worldly resources of the art form to great effect, thus making undeniably fresh and original movies. And by 1996, Assayas was not only commenting on the nature of remakes but re-contextualizing what they can be. How’s that for staying ahead of the times?
Why It Belongs in the Collection: The case for Irma Vep coming to The Criterion Collection is kind of open and shut. The title in question is a solid entry from a prominently featured director in Criterion’s library and the film’s availability is limited to a couple secondary Region 1 DVDs (Fox Lorber/Zeitgeist) with poor transfers and sound quality. Furthermore, the recent Region B Blu-ray of Irma Vep by Arrow films can be seen as a relative preamble to a Criterion release, as was the case for Fassbinder’s Eight Hours Don’t Make a Day. They also have shared titles such as Rififi, Thieves Highway, Night of the Hunter, and the Lady Snowblood duology. And given the relationship between Assayas and The Criterion Collection, it would only seem awkward if Irma Vep didn’t receive a spine number. It’s been rumored that the film is joining the ranks and let’s hope that it does because the Arrow Blu-ray transfer looks immaculate.