‘Irma Vep’ and the Place of Audacity in Cinema

There is something strange and bold about Olivier Assayas’s 1996 film Irma Vep. Even with more than twenty years removed from the subject, the film can still evoke strong feelings about its subject matter. Even in today’s film environment, it finds itself remaining relevant through its outlook on the commercialization of the film industry and the place of artistry in modern-day cinema. 

Irma Vep is about a remake of a classic French film serial Les Vampires, helmed by filmmaker René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a great director whose glory days are far behind them. For the lead role, he casts Maggie Cheung (here playing herself), a move that leaves everybody baffled as to why. What commences is a lot of commentary on the modern French film industry and its place in the more commercial landscape that was slowly taking over the world and leaving France behind.

Even with very little context as to what Les Vampires is or what the remake would signify, the mere casting of Cheung pops out significantly from the very first scene onwards. It is clear that she doesn’t belong in this production to everyone except the director: she’s playing a famous French role, and Vidal sees her casting as a way to modernize the material. It’s a strange artistic choice, mired by the fact that this seems to be the only way that Vidal updated the material for modern times.

The film itself is very funny about the subject, showing a rather bored and tired crew working on a remake that they find pointless or artistically boring, with Cheung being the only person who seems to actually care about the film being made. Assayas shows an industry in stasis, a group of people with no artistic vision, working on a project that they can’t even justify the existence of. They want to make movies that people would actually see, and they understand that this remake is basically just treading water of far more innovative films. 

There’s even a scene in the movie where Cheung is interviewed by someone who seems largely dismissive of French cinema in general, calling it too intellectual–and maybe masturbatory–before heaping praise at the films of John Woo, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Jean-Claude Van Damme because they are accessible to a broader audience who actually care to watch them. Assayas doesn’t dismiss art films in favor of Hollywood-style action film blockbusters, but he seems to realize that the audience is as important in the discussion of film as the filmmakers themselves.

It makes remaking Les Vampires a deliberate artistic choice, in that regard: Les Vampires didn’t become a classic because it was immediately beloved by critics or intellectuals, but because people went to see it and loved it and allowed it to influence films in a way that resonated through even better films throughout the decades. Assayas sees that as dumb and crowd-pleasing those Schwarzenegger and Woo films are, they will influence a new generation of filmmakers both within the studio system and outside it to make similar, better movies. 

This is a wild, audacious point to have, but it absolutely makes sense considering that Assayas wrote for Cahiers du cinéma, the same film magazine that French New Wave filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut used to write for. This film’s themes and ideas are exactly the kind that critics would have, and Assayas does not mince words as he assails the lack of boldness and artistry that filmmaking has devolved into. 

Of course, he seems to be up to the challenge of being bold and audacious: his film contains some exquisite cinematography that puts us in the alienated eyes of Cheung, with sequences that really ramp up the tension of the film. There’s one scene where Cheung gets too into the character and robs someone whilst wearing the latex Irma Vep suit, and it’s just full of quiet fear and escalation. There’s also the final scene of the film, which is basically the footage that Vidal shot with Cheung all messed-up and deteriorated, peaking with some disturbing images that really hammer home the artistic bankruptcy that the depicted remake of Les Vampires had. It’s absolutely stirring stuff, and it can get a reaction from the viewer even decades removed from context. 

Maggie Cheung is fantastic in this film, and her presence adds an extra sense of movie-star glamour that elevates the film further. She’s all easygoing charm and strong professionalism, and it’s easy to root for her and to see the French film landscape through her eyes. She is the only person in the film who believes in what she’s making (even if she doesn’t understand why she herself is in the role), and her belief and commitment for the role shows the kind of cinema that Assayas is rooting for: one where everyone cares about the films they are making, no matter how stupid or unnecessary it seems. While the remake itself is uninspired, seeing her play Irma Vep is a treat in itself and shows how good a remake of Les Vampires could be with her in the main role.

Irma Vep and Assayas’ commentary on the film industry still resonates today because in our modern blockbuster-saturated setting, where a film either has a small, dirt-cheap budget or hundreds of millions of dollars devoted to its existence, it’s important to be daring and adventurous in the stories we tell and the way we tell them, even as the industry contorts towards an inoffensive flavor to cater towards an even-broader (and internationally-oriented) audience. It’s only through those kinds of choices can we keep cinema fresh. 

We may never really reconcile the commercial, money-making aspects of the film industry with the need artists have for their work to have meaning and purpose. But maybe that’s alright: as Cheung says to the French interviewer who called French cinema too intelligent and elitist: “I think there are different audiences who like different films, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

Irma Vep is currently streaming on Mubi.

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