Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep (1996) is showing November 30 – December 30, 2017 in the United States and December 6 – January 5, 2018 in most countries around the world.
An action movie star from Hong Kong, Maggie Cheung (played by Maggie Cheung) arrives in Paris and right off the airplane, exhausted and jet-lagged, finds herself in the production hell of an arthouse film that she was hired to star in. The movie is a creative (allegedly) remake of Louis Feuillade’s classic silent series Les vampires, helmed by an aging New Wave director René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud). Vidal, way past his prime, doesn’t seem entirely certain about what he is doing and why but he is adamant about his vision of Maggie as Irma Vep (an anagram of ‘vampire’)—an acrobatic thief whose tight black garment is for the remake’s purposes updated to a sex shop latex suit.
Irma Vep is often seen as a satire, and it does offer a few snarky comments about the state of the post-New Wave French film industry. But Olivier Assayas at his best—and he is certainly at his best with Irma Vep—is a filmmaker able to maintain a sense of elusiveness, so at every moment when you think you got it there is always a new gap opening up. Assayas’ breezy, air-conditioned cinema is concerned with unstable identities and the film mirrors that in its own structure. One of the obvious ironies of Irma Vep, for instance, is that it is a French film about French film and set in France that is for the most part not even in French.
Assayas’s scripts are often partially or even entirely in English, which is something of a faux pas in a country so proud of its linguistic independence that people sometimes pretend that they don’t understand the global lingua franca even if they actually do. But for the director, Paris is no longer a self-sufficient cinematic universe on its own; it is rather just a point on the world map. The beauty of the dialogues in Irma Vep is that they are not just in English but its international variety with several levels of basicness: Maggie’s bilingual fluency, the generic Euro-English of Zoe, a costume designer who has a crush on the actress, Vidal’s heavily accented mutter. On some level, globalization leads to simplification when Cat Woman and Schwarzenegger movies become an international vernacular and force all things local out, whether Paris intellectuals like that or not. Some do, apparently, like a pretentious interviewer who favors John Woo and derides French “cinema about your own navel” (a line that appears to be a self-referential irony on Assayas’ part). In another scene, party guests bash a 1968 era political film playing on a VHS. “We are much better [than that] now,” one of them tells Maggie—Marx has been eliminated from Godard’s famous formula leaving behind a blank space: “children of Coca-Cola and—?”
Perhaps all Assayas’s cinema is about that blank space—something here is missing. Things don’t fit to each other—the production is running out of money, attractions are unrequited, actors can’t get in the right mood, Maggie’s costume has to be fit to size. Most importantly, the actress herself doesn’t fit in the space she is in. From the film’s very beginning when Maggie arrives in production office three days late, she is a foreign woman in a strange place where she knows no one and doesn’t even speak the language. The theme is usual for Assayas—his latest, Personal Shopper, is also focused on such a heroine. Paris of Irma Vep is different from what we are used to see on screen: it is composed of nondescript streets and anonymous spaces. Maggie doesn’t get to see much outside of the movie set, by definition a sham reality, and her hotel, a fake home. In spaces like these (another example is an airport, prominent in Assayas’s Boarding Gate), one loses one’s identity, and so the hotel is where one of the more bizarre sequences in Irma Vep occurs, when Maggie gets in character and intrudes into another woman’s room, spies on her and steals a pendant. We never receive an explanation for this episode of method preparation gone too far, but Assayas’s direction of the scene, which goes from anxious to suspenseful, renders it akin to a thriller or a horror film, perhaps a variation of Doctor Jekyll’s story. After all, Les vampires, a thriller about masked villains, itself revolved around vague and elusive identities. In Feuillade’s movies, Irma Vep (portrayed by Musidora) was at the same time a member of the sinister gang and a nightclub performer; she later disguises as a maid to commit a theft. Thus, Maggie Cheung is an actress who in Irma Vep plays an actress who plays an actress. What is she, what she pretends to be?
At this loss of oneself nothing is left except one’s own body, the only thing we can always be certain to possess. And so it isn’t by chance that Assayas cast Jean-Pierre Léaud to play René Vidal. The actor is of course an emblem of the New Wave and thus represents French cinema’s past, but he is also a certain kind of performer that exists organically on screen without necessarily exhibiting a refined technique: an actor of his own body, like many nouvelle vague stars. In Truffaut’s films, Léaud was the organic driving force; as their collaboration developed, the actor grew even more central to the films that captured his aging. The New Wave would be something entirely different without his peculiar antics and stinging voice. And that is why in the newest age of Irma Vep something is off about Léaud’s manner—he speaks slowly and moves as if he is permanently sedated. His time is gone, as everyone around him is quick to admit, and he responds to that in a very physical way, up to a panic attack that requires medical involvement and halts the production. Another bodily presence in the film is of course Maggie Cheung who, like Léaud, plays a version of herself. In contrast to Vidal, however, she is a fashionable star, an English-speaking icon of the global world, and an object of everyone’s desire: a perfect body, fetishized by her black latex outfit. But she is an object no less obscure, a presence that at times appears double. She is out of space and Vidal is out of time: their collaboration is doomed because it is impossible for them to find a point of junction. Vidal tries to capture her image but she remains elusive, and his edit of the film-within-the-film is comprised entirely of a scratched and painted-over footage of Maggie’s close-ups. A work of two artists who are both ‘out’ can only consist of outtakes.