Bending Boundaries

Irma Vep, 1996, directed by Olivier Assayas, Fox Lorber

Almost a remake of François Truffaut’s Day For Night, Irma Vep is a film about making films that comments on what became of French cinema after Truffaut. The director, Olivier Assayas, does not appear within the film as a director as Truffaut did but has two actors in that role. The first is Jean-Pierre Léaud who appears as René Vidal, a maker of outdated “personal” films, who is contracted to remake for television a 1915 film serial, Les Vampires (available on DVD from Image Entertainment), about the Paris underworld. Léaud who featured in many Truffaut films, but always as a one-dimensional, self-centered and manipulative little twerp (but who strangely appeals to women), in Day For Night played a childish actor whose inability to lead a real life outside the movies and resulting tantrums complicate the film production. In Irma Vep, he is the same type, and it is his nervous breakdown that nearly ends the film and causes it to be turned over to the replacement director played by Lou Castel.

Maggie Cheung plays the outside foreign star. Her role is more central than Jacqueline Bisset’s in Day For Night, as that film was more an ensemble effort. Cheung, in the movie, knows no French, leading to many scenes with dialogue in English—more preponderant than the English dialogue in Day for Night as Cheung’s role is more dominant. Odile, Day for Night’s makeup girl, becomes in Irma Vep Zoé the costume girl, whose role also absorbs the characters of the homosexual Alexandre and the amorous prop boy Bernard to become bisexual and a major character. Joelle, the script girl and director’s assistant becomes in Irma Vep the suspicious, controlling and combative Maïté. Day for Night’s genial producer becomes a harried black, always on the telephone and also yelling at someone in the room who urgently needs to talk to him.

Some things are swapped around. Where Day for Night ends with Léaud’s character going off to do a film in Tokyo, in Irma Vep it is the oriental Cheung who heads for New York and Los Angeles for new film work. Bisset’s character’s nervous breakdown is inherited by Léaud’s director, and it replaces the death of Alexandre as the crises that almost ends the production.

In Day For Night the actors and crew are a supportive community. In Irma Vep, everyone quarrels, and constantly blames someone else, accusing each other of incompetence, usually unfairly. When they can’t insult one another to their face, they slander and undermine each other behind their backs. Maïté tells Cheung that Zoé sells drugs. She tells the other actors that Zoé took Cheung home with her and “scored”. In Day For Night a way is found to complete the film with existing footage despite the death of an actor with a major part. In Irma Vep the director and lead actress are dumped for replacements, requiring a new start. It is definitely harsher and more cut throat film world that is depicted in Irma Vep.

Day for Night is a film about making a film (Meet Pamela) which is an adaptation of a novel, as so many Truffaut films were. The remake Irma Vep is about remaking Les Vampires. Irma Vep deals with the boundaries of film and reality, between character and personality, and the extent to which any of these can be understood or controlled.

In Day for Night there is some mirroring of the film world and real life. The director, played by Truffaut, apologizes to Alexander about making him die in the movie, and Alexander responds by tallying the number of times he has died in films. But he does die during production, threatening the completion of the movie. Ironically it is the death scene that is the only one that must be shot with a double following the actor’s death. Lèaud’s character, Alphonse, loses the girl both in Meet Pamela and as a cast member, and reacts destructively in both cases.

Irma Vep goes beyond mirroring to erasure of boundaries. The central character is Maggie Cheung playing Maggie Cheung in a scripted role making a film in which she plays
Lèaud’s director character, Vidal, is interested in image and movement. When the television people approached him to remake Les Vampires he did not see the point. Nor does he care about the character Irma Vep. In addition, he thinks that following the definitive performance of Musidora in the original, Les Vampires cannot be remade with a French actress. Vidal tells Cheung that he picked her based on the way she moved in a martial arts fight scene he screens for her. This had given him the idea that he could do something with Les Vampires story after all.

The footage that attracts Vidal is a particularly absurd sequence in the very campy The Heroic Trio (available on DVD from Miramax) in which a bullet fired by Cheung’s character is destroy in flight by her opponent who sees it coming and hurls a throwing star at it. The bullet is shown still in it’s brass propellent case. The whole sequence seems to be a montage of facial reaction shots and wire-work. She points out to Vidal that the sequence was just stunts.

“Flying bullet” still in it’s case

“Flying bullet” still in is brass propellant case.

Vidal tells Cheung that he agreed to do the film only if he could have Cheung as Irma Vep. Assayas is said to have remarked in an interview that he wrote Irma Vep with Cheung in mind and probably would not have shot it if she had not agreed to do it. Vidal has the lithe Cheung in a latex Catwoman’s outfit (copied from Michelle Pfeiffer’s costume in Batman Returns) in the role the rotund Musidora played in black tights (setting the costume trajectory for subsequent super-villains and superheroes). Musidora went on to be a film director, eventually making a film homage to her director in Les Vampires, Louis Feuillade (La Magique Image, 1950). After the film Irma Vep was made Maggie Cheung went on to marry its director Olivier Assayas! They later divorced but he directed her again in Clean.

Vidal is remaking Les Vampires, as a black and white silent film. He tells the actors they must “respect the silence”. This is important to him, as he insists on turning off the music track when watching old silent movies. Yet he uses a modern car in a getaway scene, and shoots the rooftop scenes with TV antennas and air conditioning ventilators. Vidal replicates the exact action, scene for scene, of the original. So why bother with a remake, instead of rerunning the original for the television viewers?

Silent movie amid TV antennas and ventilators

Silent movie amid TV antennas and ventilators.

Dumped in the midst of the backbiting film crew, after some days of filming Cheung has managed to hold her own, and even ends up at a late night party. Several people are watching an old 1960s cinéma militant film on television (full of slogans on walls: ”Cinema is not magic. It’s a technique and a science. A technique born of science and at the service of a will. The will of the workers to free themselves.”, posters of Castro, swaggering workers, political songs, demonstrations, banners, propaganda sheets coming off presses, etc.) which Zoé admires as “real cinema”, but insists it is a “new film”, while the others think it is garbage. “We are much better right now, I can tell you, I can tell you.”, one says. The cinéma militant is the filming of “reality” as pure propaganda, truth as lies.

Something is being said about time. Why must Les Vampires be new if it is the same as the old one, except for incidental vehicles and features of the built environment? Why is a twenty-five year old movie “new” to Zoé? It also seems to be the only cinema she wholeheartedly admires. Later we will hear Vidal’s work dismissed as “old cinema”. There is something about change in cinema and the quality of newness that is being questioned, but the film does not go far enough on this topic to make the point. But the new/old boundary is challenged.

Also Assayas gets to question gender boundaries when the bisexual Zoé’s discusses her crush on Cheung in a conversation with the hostess. The crew members at the party are angry with Vidal. He is getting the film that he asks for, but finds it worthless, and no one knows what his private vision is.

After the party Cheung is summoned to Vidal’s place where his breakdown is already underway. He has had a violent quarrel with his wife, and the doctor has sedated him. Vidal thinks that the daily rushes show “just images, no soul”. He seems to think that Cheung is not entering into the part enough. “You think you are at the core of the scenes, but, in fact, you are just on the surface.” He also says Irma Vep (the character) is nothing and so there is nothing for Cheung to act. Irma is just a whore for dominant character of the moment and the whole Vampire gang. It is in Cheung, not the Vep character, that Vidal says he is interested. He tries to tell her this in his bad English. But his own breakdown is becoming apparent. Just when he starts to explain the necessary “perspective” he passes out from his medication.

There is an inner/outer distinction here. The crew can’t understand Vidal’s private vision and he can’t communicate it. He thinks that Cheung isn’t getting it either. But the “soul” remains elusive. Maybe it is just Vidal cracking up.

Back in her hotel, Cheung in a strange mood tries to get into the part. Dressed in her Catwoman’s outfit she stealthily enters another guest’s room and steals some costume jewelry. The woman in the room, much more resembling Musidora, is complaining to a man over the telephone (in another English language sequence) that she has been left alone in Paris where she knows no one and is stranded in the hotel because this man failed to meet her. So we have the actress Cheung playing herself playing the role of Irma Vep but living it outside the Irma Vep movie, and encountering a person much more the physical type of the actress whose role Cheung is reprising. But this other woman, a double of Cheung’s in the sense of being a foreigner dumped in the middle of Paris not knowing anyone, is unable to master the situation (though she has been to all the movies and has opinions!), whereas Cheung has landed on her feet. The other woman is filmed lying on her back on the hotel bed. She is kept anonymous, and filmed nude, deprived of a persona and unable to be an actor in the world, lacking role, costume and an ensemble to interact with. Cheung then goes on a rooftop walk in her Catwoman suit. At the party Zoé had mentioned that Cheung had asked whether she could buy her costume after the movie. So Cheung copes, becoming something Parisian, but at the same time wholly fictitious, not just someone else but a costumed fantasy character. She retreats to role to become grounded, whereas Zoé needs propaganda, or takes drugs when she feels down.

Cheung in costume steals jewels

Cheung on roof with stolen jewels

The Hong Kong martial arts sequence from The Heroic Trio that inspired Vidal was shot in a blue and black color scheme and this is repeated for Cheung’s jewel theft and roof walk, as though these moments, never filmed by Vidal, are the ones that fit his vision.

The next day on the set a film crew drops by to report on the production and film an interview with its star Cheung, so we get film of another group shooting film. The two crews mix together in the same space where rooftop sequences are being shot, trying to film at the same time.

There are a series of panning shots here. We see a stunt double completing a scene, and the camera follows her to the right across the roof, past the interview crew setting up, to the stairs which is the access to the roof. The camera pans back to the left to the Les Vampires crew fiddling with their camera and discussing the schedule. Then it tracks forward, swings right a little to pick up the interview crew, and then moves in on Zoé who has just arrived late with Cheung, who overslept following the party and her cat burglar episode.

Zoé immediately gets in an argument with Maïté (far left in the shot below) who creates resentment by attempting to control everything, they cross in front of the scene shown below, the camera pans left, following them, and Zoé trips over the equipment. The camera moves in on their argument. Here the camera hesitates between Maïté and Zoé, who appears about to walk out of the frame then stops. Finally the shot concentrates on Maïté taking a telephone call. Then there is a cut to Cheung arriving at the top of the stairs, and the camera pans left again following her to the interview crew’s spot on the roof. The camera view remains there, but crew began to cross the frame from both directions moving and carrying things. This moment, where we have two film crews, the all-controlling Maïté creating discord, everyone doing his own job in a way that interferes with the others, and everyone confused because the director did not show up, encapsulates the film.

Crew adjust camera and discuss schedule. Maïté at far left spots Zoé arriving late.

Les Vampires crew discuss schedule.  Maïté at far left has just spotted Zoé arriving late.

Irma Vep also comments on the change in cinema. At the end of Day For Night, in a voice over, we are told that the movie Meet Pamela supposedly being depicted within Day For Night was the last studio film, and that afterwards people make films on the streets without sets or scripts. In other words the inauguration of the era of personal movie is being announced. Irma Vep is a farewell to the personal movie, and not a fond one.

The interview segment is in English, as in the film Cheung knows no French, though oddly at the end she does alright with a cab driver. (The real Cheung was raised in England from the age of eight on and returned to Hong Kong hardly speaking Chinese. This left her with a curious accent, but perhaps prepared her for playing a international sort of character as here, and in Sausalito and Clean.) Part of the interview feels like an actual interview dealing with Cheung’s Hong Kong career, and was probably improvised. The interviewer asks about how she likes French cinema, particularly the films of Vidal, two of which Cheung has seen on tape without subtitles and so was unable to follow the dialogue. When she claims to have liked the films of Vidal, with their strong images, the reporter breaks in to denounce them:

Interview crew setup

The interview 

— It’s boring cinema. It’s typical of French cinema, you know? Non-realistic. … Only to please yourself, not for the public. It’s only for the intellectuals, the elite….

— I don’t agree with that at all. I mean, you’re being very personal, I mean, I think there are different audiences that like different films, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

— No, it’s not really that. It’s old cinema. The public doesn’t want his films. No success. It’s, you know, state money. Friends giving money to friends, for make a film nobody sees, you know? Only for the intellectuals. It’s, I don’t know, but now it’s over. It’s finished, I hope.

— If there was only one type of film at the theatres you’d be so sick of that, and you’d be complaining.

— You don’t think the intellectual film killed the industry of the cinema?

Part way through the interview we suddenly switch a view of Cheung as filmed by the interview crew.

The replacement director can’t understand why Vidal hired a Chinese actress, and wants someone French who represents the physical reality of Les Vampires:

“Irma Vep is Paris. She’s the Paris underworld. She’s working-class Paris. She’s Arletty! Irma Vep is street-thugs and slums!”

Cheung is out of the movie, and another actress is moved up from a supporting role.

Maïté’s campaign against Zoé, meanwhile, involves her spreading fictions about the real lives of the film crew, and what they have been up to, which Maïté seems to believe herself. The producer, constantly communicating, usually on the telephone and to someone in the room simultaneously, and always doing something so urgent that he can’t take time to find out what is going on in the production, has lost touch with people’s plans and made the wrong travel arrangements for the change of actors. This seems to be a portrayal of a type: the arrogant, self-important black who secretly fears that he is not seen as French and not respected. This should be taken, together with the dismissal of Cheung as “Fu Manchu” by the replacement director with the foreign name of José Murano, and his vehement insistence on an authentically French Irma, as another subtheme. Nationality joins gender as a challenged boundary. The real world, it seems, is more elusive than the fictional world of fantasy film.

Crew confronts producer about ticket screwup

Producer confronted about ticket screwup 

Cheung, now out of the Les Vampires film, has gone to see René Vidal in his rest home. Everyone else had assumed that Vidal was out of reach, and that no one was allowed to see him.

“He’s not far from Paris. And it was not far, you know. I took a cab. It’s easy!… I understand René, you know. It all makes sense to me.”

And so the outsider is the insider. The one person fired from the movie is the only one that gets it.

Vidal’s departure means that everyone finally sees the bizarre travesty that he has been making. He has been working nights in the editing room on a highly symbolic and non-naturalistic film, full of added graphic elements, which has no possibility of fulfilling the television contract. Nor has he “respected the silence”. While there is no dialogue he has added a lot of electronic noise. We realize that the reason that no one could understand what he wanted was that he was going nuts. This is the last part in the movie, and Assayas continues Vidal’s doodles through his own credits breaking the boundary between Vidal’s black and white silent Les Vampires and his own Irma Vep.

Vidal’s doodles

Vidal’s edited Les Vampires

There are in fact many films here. Portions of the original Les Vampires are shown to Cheung by Vidal. His replacement Murano falls asleep watching another episode, during which it is revealed that Vampire is an anagram of Irma Vep. (That is, to successfully remake Les Vampires requires finding a way to show Irma Vep as the essence of the Vampire gang.) Also silent and in black and white are the daily rushes that we see from Vidal’s remake. We get them again, edited and heavily altered in Vidal’s version of Les Vampires that Irma Vep ends with. Then there are the two blue and black sequences, first the costumed fight scene from The Heroic Trio, and then Cheung in the rooftop sequence wearing her Catwoman costume. There is the cinéma militant from the party, the interview with Cheung discussing movies, and Irma Vep itself. When he can Assayas moves abruptly into the subfilms, only providing the explanation of their presence afterwards.

Blue black roof walk sequence

Blue and black roof walk sequence

For the American viewer there is another twist. Irma Vep is a French language film that sometimes retreats into English. But for us it is the opposite. In the frequent English segments the film approaches us, and we no longer have to struggle to read the subtitles and watch the action at the same time. The sound track features a song that alternates between French and English: Luna’s cover of Gainsbourg’s Bonnie and Clyde. It’s a remake, too.

It is film itself and its relation to life that is questioned in Irma Vep, and all the people whose careers involve personal decisions about what film should be, in contradiction to everyone else’s personal preferences. In it’s way Day for Night did this. The title refers to the trickery of film technique, shooting night scenes in daytime through a filter, in creating illusions for the audience. But much of Day for Night focused on technique: the various responsibilities in a film crew, acting technique, and how technique related to the real life of the actors (personal problems invading the performance, whether commitment to filmmaking ranked higher than outside relationships). This emphasis on the means used by film is replaced in Irma Vep with questions about the purpose of film. Should it externalize inner visions, and can it even do, and if it does why should be care about someone else’s inner vision? Does it relate a fantasy that is a needed counterpoint to our lives, does it fulfill a need to project our inwardness onto the world, or does it work the other way, interpreting objective realities for us to create or reinforce an inner meaning, as Zoé, who despises the Batman films but loves cinéma militant, seems to think?

Irma Vep raises these questions with a post-modern point. Making a film involves constructing interpretive categories: time, gender, nationality, and personality. But we can look at this necessity in two ways. Does the fact that film must construct these categories, or at least their boundaries, show that they are arbitrary, merely impositions of personal will? Or does it show that they are unavoidable in any interpretive project like a movie, because fundamentally they have an objective reality?

For many, Day for Night with its wry but kindly presentation of film making, is their favorite film about film. For me it is Irma Vep with its much darker humor and caustic view of human relationships and limited understanding. This onion also has more layers to peel. The editing by Luc Barnier is very good, and the films moves along well.

The Fox Lorber DVD is their usual low quality production. It is not anamorphic, nor can it stand upscaling to a high resolution display as the image becomes smeary. Also it is a film that could really use some extras on the DVD, and all we get is some filmographies and a trailer.


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