With readers turning to their home viewing options more than ever, this daily feature provides one new movie each day worth checking out on a major streaming platform.
To fill the void left by the absence of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, for the next two weeks, this column will be dedicated to films that premiered at the festival over the course of seven decades.
When the news broke that Olivier Assayas was collaborating with A24 on a TV version of “Irma Vep,” the only truly surprising thing about it was that the project had been conceived before the pandemic. The prospect of Assayas remaking his 1996 masterpiece would have seemed unfathomable just a few short months ago. Although Assayas’ previous foray into television produced the most exciting crime epic of the last 10 years (“Carlos”), the pitch reeked of desperation, a fetishistic desire for “normalcy,” and the need to keep working at any cost.
Until it didn’t. Rewatching the original “Irma Vep” in the hours after learning there might one day be another, the raw potential for this remake lifted off the screen like a secret image hiding inside a stereogram. With cinema at a complete standstill for the first time in its history, further complicating a medium that was already stuck at a crossroads between its mythic past and uncertain future, Irma Vep might just be the hero we need right now. If the black leather bondage suit fits, wear it.
But as Maggie Cheung learned the hard way, that costume isn’t exactly comfortable, and finding “the grace” to move around in it can be a lot harder than Musidora made it look in the 1915-1916 Louis Feuillade serial that first introduced the character (and the archetype of the femme fatale along with her). That search would become the very subject of Assayas’ film, and the solution to the greatest impasse his career has ever faced.
It was 1993, and Assayas was struggling to get over the disastrous performance of his most personal movie. The pouty mood piece “A New Life” was the relatively mainstream project Assayas had been working towards since he stopped writing about cinema in favor of making it, and its failure left him at a total loss as to how he should, or even could, move forward.
Assayas had treasured the capriciously intellectual spontaneity of Jacques Rivette, Philippe Garrel, and other French auteurs whose movies seemed like they were shot on liquid mercury and projected through lightning bolts. As a filmmaker, however, he was stuck in his own head. Paralyzed by his own aesthetic, the restless filmmaker made the most forward-thinking decision of his career: He decided to go backwards.
The second of three low-budget 16mm films that Assayas would make between 1994 and 1997, “Irma Vep” wrestles with the inexorable presentness of cinema’s past in order to help divine its future; it’s a lithe and unassuming piece of meta-fiction that goes all the way back to the silent era in order to arrive at something that feels completely new — or that at least reminds audiences of how thrilling that discovery could be.
The movie reflects a rich history of French movies about the foibles of movie-making (“Day for Night”) and the porous nature of the artistic process (“Celine and Julie Go Boating”). The story begins with actress Maggie Cheung (playing herself) landing in Paris to star in a remake of “Les Vampires.” The production was in rough shape long before Cheung arrived from Hong Kong, and by the time she gets there, the whole thing is chaos. It’s a vibrating jumble of production assistants, propmasters, and various other crew members (the standout being a flirtatious costume designer played by Nathalie Richard), as Assayas captures the hectic friction of modern filmmaking better than anyone before or since.
On the set of “Les Vampires,” that friction stems from director René Vidal, a raspy old man played by Jean-Pierre Léaud in a delicious bit of stunt casting that’s just a bit too obvious to play like an inside joke. (Léaud’s iconic role in the history of French cinema adds a self-reflective dimension to a character stuck between reverence and desire.) Vidal picked a Chinese actress to play Irma Vep because he was struck by the physicality of her screen presence in Hong Kong action movies (globalism and modernity always being at the root of Assayas’ interests, and Cheung being his future ex-wife), but upon meeting his star, Vidal is instantly paralyzed by the recognition that he’d be wasting her talent on a role that already belongs to someone else. “You are more important than the character,” he wheezes at Cheung during a moment of complete desolation. “In the end, there is nothing for you to act — Irma Vep is an object.”
Vidal wants cinema to evolve, but he doesn’t know how to get out of its way. In his own words, Assayas has said that “the central question of ‘Irma Vep’ is: ‘How can you go back to the original, virginal strength of cinema?’” The film is so much fun (and so enduringly relevant) because it answers that question in ways that would seem contradictory if not for how the movie synthesizes them all together.
Cheung spends most of the movie rubbernecking at the production chaos from the sidelines. She’s gawked at, hit on, and shuttled around, but also given so little opportunity to actually do her job that she winds up feeling like an impostor in her own costume. But then — just when Vidal is starting to lose it and his “Les Vampires” seems like it will implode along with him — she enters a kind of fugue state where she’s possessed by the thieving spirit of Irma Vep herself.
Dressed in the character’s black catsuit, she sneaks into a hotel room door the corridor from hers, hides from the naked and preoccupied woman inside, and steals an eye-popping diamond necklace. It’s as sleek a sequence as Assayas has ever directed; erotic and tense and inflected with the kind of cinematic flourishes (midnight lighting, movie smoke, sheets of fake rain) that are missing from the rest of the film. It allows Cheung to solve Vidal’s problem and fully become her own version of Irma Vep — liberating the iconic character from the strictures of a national cinema that had held it hostage for almost 100 years — but only because the director’s camera wasn’t there to see it.
It’s only after Vidal hits bottom and completely loses faith in himself that he’s able to find a solution of his own. It comes at the very end of the film, as the crew screens Vidal’s footage after he’s been fired off the “Les Vampires” remake. Assayas has shown us flashes of Vidal’s movie at several junctures throughout “Irma Vep” in order to help blur the boundaries between film history and meta-fiction, but now we’re treated to three uninterrupted minutes of edited assembly.
The results are… unexpected. Instead of traditional dailies, Vidal has left behind a violent deconstruction of what he’d shot; a barrage of semi-structuralist imagery in which Cheung is animated by a series of wild geometric doodles. It’s mesmeric and almost meaningless to a certain degree, but it also feels transcendent because of how perfectly it indicates Vidal’s success at creating a cinema that is informed — but not owned by — the past.
With “Irma Vep,” Assayas was able to free himself from the neurotics of filmmaking and tap into the medium’s innate sense of grace. He emerged from the project with a fresh and intuitive sense of how to pursue his own cinema, and while the movie may not have caused a measurable sea change in the industry around it, he has found enough support to follow his muse ever since.
But now, despite how much the world has changed, Assayas finds himself in a similar situation as he did before Vidal sublimated himself into the final scenes of “Irma Vep” some 24 years ago. For one thing, he’s coming off his first outright dud since “A New Life,” as the Cuba-set thriller “Wasp Network” failed to create much buzz on the festival circuit last fall. And while Assayas is far more assured of his purpose than he was in the early ’90s, the business around him is on the precipice of an even more severe inflection point.
The international market has been so poisoned by populism that content has supplanted art and Disney tentpoles are the only movies that can turn a reliable profit. On screen and off, the cinema has changed as much between 1996 and 2020 as it had between 1915 and 1996, and its future has never seemed less certain. And that was true before the pandemic froze virtually every production on Earth.
If “Irma Vep” was like a shovel that Assayas used to tunnel out of the prison of his own anxieties, it makes sense that the prolific artist would return to it now that he’s locked up at home with everything to think about and nothing to do. And while he may now be more of the old guard than the vanguard, the 65-year-old Frenchman still has a finger on the pulse like few people ever will; whether dipping back into autobiography or exploring the way that modern technology mediates our sense of self, Assayas is always looking for solutions to problems that few other filmmakers will even acknowledge. His perspective on the immediate future of cinema remains invaluable.
It’s too early to say for sure if the TV show will be an expanded retelling of “Irma Vep” or if it will acknowledge the existence of the 1996 movie as directly as the 1996 movie acknowledged “Les Vampires,” but it’s a hard to imagine how Assayas could ever resist the temptation of the latter approach — how he could deny himself the opportunity to wrestle with his ambitions while also trying to outwit his own shadow. And who would play the Maggie Cheung role? A Chinese actress makes sense now for a much different reason than one did then, but there’s no denying that Irma Vep would be the ideal next step in Assayas’ collaboration with Kristen Stewart, least of all because of how beautifully she channeled Maggie Cheung’s demure sense of self-possession in “Personal Shopper” and “Clouds of Sils Maria.”
Of course, if we could think of a way to remake “Irma Vep,” we wouldn’t need Assayas to do it for us. And if Assayas has thought of a way to remake “Irma Vep,” that’s reason enough to believe that he must. In cinema, the past will always be present, and the present will always be past. While some argue that’s what makes the medium obsolete in the modern world, Irma Vep insists that it’s what always keeps it relevant. It’ll be good to have her back.
“Irma Vep” is available to stream on the Criterion Channel.