How Irma Vep Ended Classic French Cinema

For a while, the French judge cinema. Auguste and Louis Lumièrealong with French illusionist Georges Méliès essentially invented and pioneered the cinematic language as we know it today. The Lumière brothers are credited with having the first public screenings in history, thus inventing the concept of commercial moviegoing. Mélièssprinting from the starting line that the Lumières had set up, created innumerable filmic devices that have become integral to the way in which motion pictures are made, utilizing ingenious special effects and editing techniques to create new possibilities in the medium.

Since then, filmmakers like Jean Renoir, Robert Bressonand Jean Cocteau, working in the early-to-mid 20th Century, each crafted singular artistic styles that pushed the formal and narrative, helping place France boundaries as one of the promised lands of cinema. The French New Wave, led by young defiant movie buff-turned-directors like Jean-Luc Godard, Agnes Varda, François Truffautand Louis Malle once again ushered in a new era of cinema by breaking nearly every rule in the book. But it isn’t as though the French reign of the kingdom of cinema is over—there are plenty of excellent works still being produced by French directors, like Claire Denis, Julia Ducournauand Arnaud Desplechin, among many others—it’s just that times inevitably change. In 1996’s Irma Vep, written and directed by another of the greatest contemporary French filmmakers Olivier Assayas and recently remade into an HBO miniseries, mediates on the past, present, and future of France’s place in the film industry, waving goodbye to days past.


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There’s a lengthy thread of cinematic history weaving its way through Irma Vep. The very premise is set around a fictional modern remake of Louis Feuillade‘s 1915 silent crime serial Les Vampires, to be helmed by René Vidal, an aging director who is out of his artistic prime (Jean-Pierre Léaud). There’s a lot happening at once: the casting of Léaud in this crucial role is symbolic, considering the actor was an iconic figure during the New Wave, starring in The 400 Blows, Masculin Femininand Day For Night. Léaud convincingly embodies a cinematic figure stuck in the past (his obsession with properly adapting the silent serial is unwavering), a fact made comically meta by Léaud’s own reduced relevance with infrequent, small roles during the past few decades. It’s also worth noting that Irma Vep bears a strong resemblance to Day For Night, serving as a sort of antithesis to Truffaut’s wide-eyed and wonderful portrayal of the art of filmmaking. By comparison, Assayas’s film is a biting criticism of French Cinema’s inability to embrace the invitability of change and modernism.

In Irma Vep, Maggie Cheung plays herself, a Hong Kong movie star who is cast by the remake’s director to fill the role played by Musidora in the serial. Cheung’s casting is much to the chagrin of Jose Mirano (Lou Castel), the director sent to replace Vidal after his breakdown. Mirano is disturbed by the very idea of ​​a foreigner playing the role originally played by a French woman. The placement of Cheung in this dissection of modern French cinema is important— age where international productions are only an intention common, this particular French production is unable to adapt to a worldwide audience. In a comedic scene between Cheung and a critic/journalist (Antoine Basler) interviewing her, Cheung is vague and evasive when asked about the quality of Vidal’s work (“The images were very strong,” she says). In retort, the critic goes on to praise John Woo, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude VanDammeand other international cinematic figures.

The critic goes on to dismiss Vidal—and French cinema—as “nombriliste” (which means “Navel-gazing”), or egocentric and self-indulgent. Here’s a guy who is fascinated by the way in which the cinema of the world is constantly changing, and how action flicks and blockbusters are paving the way for the future. Is intellectual cinema dead? This fellow seems to think so. Maggie Cheung defends Vidal and “poetic” cinema, explaining that it has the right to exist since there’s an audience for it. The journalist is skeptical. Vidal, an outdated figure who’s (eventually) unable to even complete a film, is losing relevance. If John Woo can adapt to an international audience, why can’t Vidal? Why can’t France? Assayas isn’t overly sentimental about the history of French cinema, but he also isn’t overly critical of film’s present state. Each has the right to exist, he says, but the only issue is that one may no longer be as relevant as it once was.

Vidal gives his rationale behind casting Cheung, a Hong Kong native that speaks virtually zero French: to cast a French actress would draw inevitable comparisons to Musidora, which would be blasphemy. Cheung’s acting in the role of Irma Vep would rationally help differentiate one work from the other. At the core of Assayas’s film, then, are three eras of French filmmaking: Feuillade and cinema’s early, silent days, with Les Vampires being the work upon which all is set; Vidal, a stand-in for Léaud himself and the New Wave, a period of filmmaking whose influence remains but whose relevance is questionable; and Cheung, a young, contemporary film artist whose popular performances in action flicks signal what is to become pervasive in mainstream cinema.

In a rapidly modernizing society, though, any attempts at making something traditionally “French” are made complicated by blurred concepts of nation’s place in entertainment. With the universality of film as a medium, a modern age is bringing about damning globalism in cinema in which good pictures are being made in a very large number of countries around the world. The French journalist is borderline contemptuous of the indulgent manner of Vidal and French cinema. Instead, he’s fascinated by Woo and Schwarzenegger, without any care for what the French are producing. Comparatively, Vidal is dismissive of unintellectual cinema (“just images, no soul…it’s worthless,” he melancholically says to Cheung). He has his own idea of ​​what films should be. To Vidal, movies purely for entertainment’s sake have little value.

Vidal and his would-be remake are also at the center of an artistic battle forecasting the end of the 20th Century. It’s a production that is meant to be simultaneously artistic and commercial. Pictures can’t keep getting made if there’s no money, so Yeah, people need to go see the movies to ensure that others will follow. There’s a short, easy-to-overlook scene at the center of Irma Vep in which Cheung attends a party thrown by members of the production. Many of the attendees are sitting around, watching scuzzy videotapes of their older films, which are formally inventive and highly political. It’s Assayas’s way of, once again, viewing the backbone of French cinema’s history. Much of what was the French New Wave metamorphosed into formally free political cinema, with Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin producing a period of avant-garde works to voice their leftist politics. Godard’s still making experimental, politically-minded films to this day, but the movement itself has changed.

It’s all carefully crafted in Assayas’s hands. He knows that Mirano’s dismissal of Cheung for nationalistic purposes is absurd, with him suggesting that the clear consequence of such backward thinking behavior is stagnancy. Cheung gets scooped up by American filmmakers, and the production of Les Vampires remains stalled. In the fashion of a French Exit (ha), Cheung departs from the film set without so much as a word. It is rumored that she’s acquired a meeting with Ridley Scott to star in a big-budget American blockbuster. Those remaining behind on set discuss rumors (will it be in New York or Los Angeles?), but ultimately return to their work. Will their little production of Les Vampires be completed without Vidal and Cheung?

throughout Irma Vep, the set’s costume designer, Zoé (Nathalie Richard), constantly asks why anybody should even be remaking Les Vampires, to begin with. She is in the mindset that something new should be made, with Vidal’s attempted production being utterly senseless. Throughout the film, she preaches that something original should be crafted: again, a bit of meta-ness from Assayas. Sure, it’s a movie called Irma Vep, and it is, in a sense, about Irma Vep, but it’s everything but a remake of Les Vampires. As if obedient to Zoé’s request, Assayas makes something wholly unique and original. It’s looking backward while simultaneously stepping forward. He’s acknowledging the pervasive presence of artistic ghosts while smudging with sage the house that they haunt. Their work still exists, and it’s really quite wonderful, but isn’t it time to move on?

The film ends with Vidal’s edited footage compiled from the shooting. It’s a Lynchian bit of surreal filmmaking, with strange edits and on-frame animation that deconstructs whatever narrative could have been assembled from the meager footage. Irma’s (or, rather, Cheung’s) eyes are scribbled into black lines that are at once beautiful and nightmarish. What does Vidal’s final vision of Les Vampires mean? It’s hard to say if it means anything.

Interestingly, Vidal’s final touch with the footage from his remake feels more faithful to Les Vampires than a more direct remake would have. Feuillade’s original serial was groundbreaking and masterful, and it inspired the innovative techniques made internationally popular by Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock. To make Les Vampires without being revolutionary would, ultimately, be insincere. It would be heartless and dull. At first look, it could seem like Vidal has simply lost his mind, succumbing to the complete breakdown that he seemed to be headed towards for most of the film—but has he? The footage he’s completed is hallucinatory and difficult to understand, but it is also made continuously clear throughout the film that Vidal’s work is more cerebral than most. Adhering to stereotypes of the pretentious and heady works of European cinema, this vision from the aging filmmaker is anything but traditional.

Contradictorily, though, Vidal’s work is ultimately inseparable from the experimental days of the French New Wave. Vidal deconstructed Les Vampires, And as a result, he was able to produce a film that adheres to his philosophy on cinema. It’s a piece that prioritizes art over profit. The French journalist interviewing Cheung would hate probably hate it. It’s no coincidence that Vidal is remaking a staple of classic French cinema, nor is it coincidental that Vidal is played by a New Wave icon like Léaud. Similarly, Cheung is meticulously cast, and the general similarities shared between Irma Vep and Truffaut’s Day For Night are purposeful in the prior film’s intention of marking the end of an entire era of cinema. Assayas sees that cinema is going somewhere, and he hopes that the French will come along for the ride.

Thankfully, young directors like Assayas helped ensure France’s relevance in a global economy. His own Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper, both excellent works, utilize an international cast of actors while serving as co-productions with Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, and others. Unlike the stubborn traditions of Mirano, Assayas, at last, embraced the international modernity of filmmaking. There are plenty of masterful works from French’s cinematic past. There always will be. What’s important is that the inevitable end of one era is accepted in order for the next to arrive on time. Irma Vep is a farewell to the glorious days of classic French cinema, but it’s also a fanfare welcoming in an entirely new age of French (and international) filmmaking, one rife with possibilities.

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