Guest post by Jon Vickers, IU Cinema Founding Director Emeritus.
It is hard not to conjure thoughts of Francois Truffaut’s 1973 film Day for Night when first thinking about Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep from 1996. On the most obvious level, Assayas’ “circus-of-a-film-production” is led by aging director René Vidal, played expertly by Truffaut’s longtime alter-ego, Jean-Pierre Léaud, who appears in Day for Night. If one knows anything about Assayas’ trajectory as a filmmaker, they know that he started as a film critic for the influential magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, like his French New Wave mentors, including Truffaut. And, let’s face it, there is not a more famous or beloved French film about filmmaking than Day for Night, which won the Oscar in 1974 for Best Foreign Language film.
But, as Irma Vep begins to unfold, it is quick to distinguish itself as something completely different.
Both films are tragicomedies in their examination of the trials and tribulations of making a film. They capture the frenetic and sometimes chaotic energy on a film set and behind the scenes of a film’s production. Ultimately, Day for Night is a joyful film about the magic of the movies where Irma Vep soberly presents the fragility of the creation of art, especially with an artform as collective as filmmaking. The production is plagued with apathy, non-professionalism and frankly lack of direction from a director painted into a corner, having difficulty keeping a grasp on his vision.
The film also acts as a critique of the medium’s changing forms, audience expectations, and the commercialism of the film industry. This is aptly brought to light during on onscreen press interview with Maggie Cheung, where the interviewer expresses his dismissal of “boring” French cinema in exchange for his love of the action films of John Woo. Additionally, Assayas’ film challenges itself to consider whether films or creative works, especially works of renown status, should be rebooted or remade. (Coincidentally, Irma Vep — the movie about remaking the silent serial into a movie — is currently being remade again by Assayas, this time as a serial … or episodic television program. Meta, anyone?)
The plot of Irma Vep revolves around a film production which is to remake Louis Feuillade’s 1915 silent serial Les vampires. “Les vampires” is an anagram for Irma Vep, the name of the main character in the serial who works as a thief by night, clad in a tight, full-body leather outfit. The remake is being helmed by an aging French film director who cast Hong Kong action star Maggie Cheung (playing a version of herself) to lead this French production of a very traditional French story. The chaos of the production drives the director and film to their creative edges, culminating in something quite unpredictable.
Olivier Assayas has made 18 feature films to date (if you count his three-part Carlos as one), with Irma Vep being his sixth. I have seen all but two or three of his features, but my first exposure to his work was Irma Vep, which we screened at our small theatre in Michigan, the Vickers Theatre, when the film opened in the U.S. I was blown away — I had not seen anything quite like it at the time. It is a joyride of a trainwreck of a film — within a film — coming to a catharsis at the end, which I will touch on below (without blatant spoilers).
Assayas is an interesting filmmaker, to say the least. He is the son of French filmmaker Raymond Assayas, who directed films under the name Jacques Rémy. Like his French New Wave predecessors, he began as a film journalist with Cahiers du Cinéma before starting to write and direct short films. His debut feature film was Disorder in 1986, but his 1994 film Cold Water (which is also available on Criterion and I highly recommend viewing) gained him international attention when it screened as part of the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival. The film has one of the most beautiful and visceral night party scenes committed to film.
Irma Vep started out as an anthology film between Claire Denis, Atom Egoyan, and Assayas — at the prompting of Denis. Assayas had some time to kill while waiting for the production of his film Les Destinées (Sentimental Destinies) to begin. The three filmmakers started writing short films which would all take place in the same hotel. This idea was hijacked after Assayas met Maggie Cheung at a film festival, where she was representing Wong Kar Wai’s Ashes of Time. He then decided to expand his short film idea and write Irma Vep with a part for Cheung.
Assayas is a true auteur, having written every film he has directed. Though he was lumped into a group of filmmakers coined the New French Extreme by critic James Quandt, Assayas’ films (on a whole) are perhaps the least provocative or transgressive of those of the other filmmakers within the group. They are, however, often strong social and political critiques, challenging the status quo of the moments he is creating on film.
And how can that not be, coming of age in the late 1960s? In his own words, he was “defined by the politics of May ’68.” His film language is informed by Robert Bresson, but his biggest intellectual influence is Guy Debord, Marxist theorist, philosopher, and founder of a Letterist faction and Situationist International. Debord’s best known work is the 1967 book and 1973 film The Society of the Spectacle, which aims to “wake up the spectator who has been drugged by spectacular images…through radical action in the form of the construction of situations…situations that bring a revolutionary reordering of life, politics, and art.”
At the unforgettable end of Irma Vep, Debord’s influence is given center stage, at the service of Olivier Assayas, Remy Vidal, and the film itself.
Though Irma Vep is a critique of the French film industry and art’s commercialism of the time, the film was given enough funding by the French government to nimbly shoot on Super 16mm over four weeks (with the silent B&W film-within-the-film shot on 35mm). Industry and social critiques aside, the film remains Assayas’ most commercially successful film to date. Then again, HBO’s Irma Vep has yet to make its debut…
Irma Vep screens at IU Cinema on December 9 at 7 pm. This screening is the inaugural program of an annual series called Jon Vickers Pics, which honors IU Cinema’s founding director emeritus and is endowed by Darlene J. Sadlier and James O. Naremore, two immensely important figures in the development of IU Cinema. Thanks to them both for their many contributions to IU Cinema, including the endowment of this series. The screening will be followed by a short conversation about the film between Jon Vickers and James Naremore.
Jon Vickers is the founding director emeritus of IU Cinema. His tenure included ‘building community’ through film experiences since the early 1990s, having opened and built programs for three thriving art cinemas in the Midwest. Favorite film: Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1995).