Blu-ray Review: Irma Vep

STUDIO: Criterion | DIRECTOR: Olivier Assayas | CAST: Maggie Cheung, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Nathalie Richard, Antoine Basler, Bulle Ogier, Lou Castel
RELEASE DATE: 4/27/21 | PRICE: DVD $22.99, Blu-ray $27.99
BONUSES: New interview with Assayas; a behind-the-scenes featurette; 2003 interview with Assayas and critic Charles Tesson; 2003 interview with Maggie Cheung and Nathalie Richard; documentary Musidora, the Tenth Muse (2013); the sixth episode of Les vampires; 1997 short film by Assayas; b&w rushes for the film
SPECS: NR | 99 mins | Foreign language drama-comedy | 1.66:1 widescreen | 5.1 surround | French and English with English subtitles

RATINGS (out of 5 dishes): Movie  | Audio  | Video  | Overall 

Irma Vep (1996) is by definition a “small” movie — a tale of a has-been director making an unlikely remake of a silent cliffhanger with an equally unlikely lead actress. 25 years later, it remains a brilliant statement about independent filmmaking, the cultural differences between European and Asian filmmaking, and the seductive power of a latex catsuit.

Oliver Assayas has made a number of excellent films — Cold Water and Summer Hours among them — but Irma Vep is among his best, if only because it is indeed so small in scope and so wonderfully cast. It is rooted in that moment in the Nineties when digital technology was making filmmaking simpler, and yet it remains timeless in its depiction of artistic collaboration and how it can be thrown upside down by a participant whose motives aren’t clear.

The participant in question is a once-fashionable director, played by French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud (The 400 Blows). He takes on an assignment for French TV to remake the silent cliffhanging serial Les Vampires (1915) by Louis Feuillade. He hires Hong Kong star Maggie Cheung (playing herself) to star as the catsuited criminal mastermind Irma Vep. This decision is never fully understood by his crew but is understood by Maggie herself — once she has become comfortable with the catsuit, she goes off on a late night adventure in her hotel, stealing a precious necklace.

The delight of the film is that Assayas made a film with serious themes that is breezy and entertaining — as is clear when we realize that Léaud character (and Assayas as well?) is making the film in part to see Maggie in a catsuit. In this way Assayas stays true to the pace and feel of the three inspirations for the picture: the brisk, action-filled HK films that Cheung represents (from Jackie Chan’s stunt-fest farces to the blissful fantasies of Ching Siu Tung and Tsui Hark), the French New Wave (with Léaud, the living embodiment of Truffaut and Godard’s paeans to youthful enthusiasm), and the much-copied cliffhangers — with memorable images of the roofs of Paris — by Feuillade.

Maggie Cheung is Irma Vep

Adding to this stew is dialogue about aesthetic matters, film history and the public taste for mindless action (in France and, most certainly, America). Assayas also devotes screen time to two phenomena that are distinctly foreign to American cineastes of the 1990s and the present day — political filmmaking (which was a palpable force in France in the late Sixties and early Seventies) and the avant-garde “underground” (which has no place in the Tarantino “universe” of present-day mainstream American filmmaking).

The ensemble cast chosen by Assayas not only convey the sense of a working film crew but also are symbolic presences, given their past work. Nathalie Richard (Joan the Maid), who plays the wardrobe mistress who is attracted to Cheung, is an indie-film vet, who starred in the films of Rivette. Bulle Ogier (Le Pont du Nord), whose character hosts a dinner party for the crew, is a link to the daring films of the late Sixties and early Seventies, while Lou Castel (The Nun), who plays the director who takes over the Les Vampires project when Léaud’s character disappears, is another link to the political and experimental cinema of the past, having worked with Bellochio, Cavani, and Fassbinder.

The two most impeccably cast individuals, though, are of course Cheung and Léaud. They both bring a tangible reality to their roles, as Cheung plays herself and is asked by other characters about her work in HK action movies (while she also had, by the time of Irma Vep, starred in the work of HK “arthouse” masters Wong Kar-Wai and Stanley Kwan; she also had a real-life relationship with Assayas that resulted in their marriage — it’s apparent throughout Irma Vep that the filmmaker is in love with his star). Léaud remains to this day the strongest “remnant” of the French New Wave and plays an emotionally troubled filmmaker here, with Assayas drawing on then-recent brushes with the law Léaud had over violent episodes.

The supplements contained in this release explore the film from different angles. B&W rushes and a behind-the-scenes video show the film shoot. A 1997 short film, “Man Yuk, a Portrait of Maggie Cheung,” by Assayas intercuts abstracted images with bits of Cheung doing her ablutions, qualifying it as the second cinematic Valentine from him to Cheung (the third and last — made while they were divorcing — was the 2004 feature Clean, for which Maggie won Best Actress at Cannes).

A lengthy speech by Assayas about the current state of cinema, solicited by a Belgian publisher, is also included. The director reads his lengthy and very penetrating essay to a computer camera for 46 minutes. He tackles numerous topics in that time, emphasizing how teaching cinema in schools and the “cinephile culture” have led not to an openness in the cinematic landscape, but only to more restrictions.

The most jarring thing about the video is that Assayas maintains an extremely serious demeanor throughout — even when, toward the end, his cell phone goes off, then his land line, then his cell (more than once). Of course he had already covered how the Internet has changed the public’s perception of, and receptivity toward, cinema, but it’s odd to see him reaching off-camera to silence the phones, only to have them ring again a few minutes later. He clearly wanted the essay to be read in one single shot, but one thinks he might’ve cut the camera when the initial phone went off — or at least acknowledged it in the video.

The package also includes a full episode of the original 1915 Les Vampires as well as a full-length 2013 documentary profile of its star, Musidora, who played the first costumed female criminal in cinema (and thus in pop culture). Director Patrick Cazals reviews her career, starting with her years as a cabaret performer much beloved by critics and the public — and the surrealists, for whom she became a muse. Her movie career followed, with her first acting and then directing films (in both France and Spain, her adopted home country). Most interesting is her final vocation — conducting interviews for an oral history of the cinema project for Henri Langlois at the Cinémathèque Française.

Jean-Pierre Léaud and Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep

A 2003 interview with Assayas and his fellow critic Charles Tesson finds the two discussing a trip they took to Hong Kong in the summer of 1984, which resulted in their editing a special issue of the Cahiers du Cinema about HK filmmaking. Assayas is far chattier than Tesson so he dominates the conversation, discussing both his passion for charting the history of HK and Taiwanese cinema and for Maggie Cheung in particular (he says it was “love at first sight” when the two first met). The most amusing part of the conversation occurs when Assayas notes how poorly the special issue of the Cahiers sold at the time, and how he and Tesson can now be proud because “Posterity has avenged us!”

Another 2003 interview, this one with Cheung and costar Richard, is also included. Here the interviewer spends more time talking to Cheung, but the actresses provide a good deal of valuable information about the film shoot that is nowhere else in the supplements. Cheung speaks about the unique opportunity that the film presented her with —  playing herself in a foreign-language feature with a crew and filmmaker she had just met.

The two discuss the amount of improvisation that was allowed by Assayas, who encouraged them to alter the lines (in many cases with Cheung, to supply her own new lines in English) as long as the dialogue still followed the plot he had scripted. Cheung adds that she was initially thrown off by Léaud, who added physical bits of business in addition to his own manufactured dialogue. She also notes that the little-discussed but very important scene where she steals the necklace in the catsuit was in the script from the very beginning and was important to the development of the “Maggie Cheung” character in the film.

The only video supplement created for this release is a present-day interview with Assayas that finds him covering a lot of ground. He deems Irma Vep part of his “reinvention,” as it found him incorporating improvisation into the shoot and, of course, being in love with his star. (He at one point namechecks von Sternberg as an influence, perhaps for stylistic reasons but also because of Josef’s obsession with Dietrich.)

He discusses the film’s genesis, from being one third of a proposed anthology film (with fellow filmmakers Claire Denis and Atom Egoyan) about the goings-on in a hotel to becoming a feature incorporating different elements of film history. He remembers the four-week shoot on super-16 as a collaborative effort, with the most fascinating post-production work being the avant-garde editing and alteration (scratches, designs, industrial noise) of footage that comprises the surprising and absolutely brilliant finale of Irma Vep (wherein we learn that Léaud’s character did have a plan, after all, for his seemingly misguided remake of a silent thriller).

For the record, Assayas notes that he wasn’t inspired at all by the best-remembered French film about filmmaking, Truffaut’s Day for Night, and instead found inspiration in Fassbinder’s more bitter concoction, Beware of a Holy Whore, which featured Lou Castel as a fictionalized surrogate for Fassbinder.

Assayas also sums up his whole career in mid-interview in a single tangential statement. He declares that he’s always “making movies no one wanted or expected.”

Buy or Rent Irma Vep

About Ed

Ed Grant has written about film for a wide range of periodicals, books and websites. He edited the reference book The Motion Picture Guide Annual and, since 1993, has produced and hosted the weekly cable program Media Funhouse, which Time magazine called “the most eclectic and useful movie show on TV.”