NYFF34: Olivier Assayas’ “Irma Vep”

Posted by Max Nelson on 7.17.2012


Maggie Cheung as Maggie Cheung in Olivier Assayas' Irma Vep (NYFF '96)

Midway through Olivier Assayas' Irma Vep (NYFF '96), a guest at an emotionally charged dinner party turns on a record in time for the first strains of Luna’s "Bonnie and Clyde." It’s a cover song, a re-imagination of a Serge Gainsbourg – Brigitte Bardot duet that is itself a retelling of a story less history than myth. What more appropriate soundtrack for a film that is itself a meditation on making and remaking?

Irma Vep may be a dizzying, Chinese box of a film, but its premise is simple: director Rene Vidal is tasked with remaking Luis Feuillade's silent serial Les Vampires. His source material is more a burden than an inspiration, a constant reminder of his debt to cinema past. Vidal inherits rather than creates—the previous interpreters of the parts he must fill continue to define and possess those characters more than he ever can. He insists on casting a Chinese actress, Maggie Cheung, in the central role of femme fatale Irma Vep because it would be "blasphemy" for a French actress to follow the great Musidora. Vidal’s attempt to divorce his Irma Vep from those that came before it is doomed to failure—for it’s not just Cheung stepping into that iconic catsuit, but every character she’s ever played in films past. This Irma Vep is as much the product of dozens of Chinese action films as it is the fruit of Vidal’s singular vision.

Vidal may come off as a caricature of the frustrated genius auteur, but it’s an affectionate caricature—for Assayas clearly sympathizes with the man’s plight. Like Vidal, Assays finds himself trapped: unable to create something new and unwilling to remake past creations. Irma Vep strives desperately to become an original work, but until it can assert its status as a new and autonomous creation it needs to keep itself from devolving into a mere remake. The solution is for the film to take as its subject this very tension—Assayas’ own inability to call his film either a reproduction or a novel work of art.

Maybe, though, Assayas doesn't have as much reason as he thinks to doubt his own creative potential. It's in those moments when he forgets about inventing new forms, when he gets comfortable updating and re-contextualizing existing creations, that Assayas ends up creating something truly modern, truly free from the hold of the past.  He allows someone else’s song to dictate the rhythm of a scene filmed many times in many contexts—a motorcycle ride beside a night-lit river—believing in spite of himself in the power of his images to convey the frustrated longing of Nathalie Richard’s Zoe for the unreachable Cheung. Perhaps the rain-drenched scene in which a catsuit-clad Cheung tosses a stolen necklace from a hotel roof to the pounding strains of Sonic Youth’s "Tunic" is merely an amalgamation of pre-existing creations, but the result is more genuinely thrilling, and more decidedly modern, than any remake has the right to be.

In spite of all his doubts, Assayas retains some glimmer of faith in the ability of the cinema to make the old new, to imbue existing creations or even existing re-creations with new associations—and it's in those sporadic moments of hope that he manages to recapture that sense of supreme joy that suffused the work of cinema’s pioneers. Re-appropriation becomes a means to rebirth. It's telling that Assayas doesn't give the last word to the avant-garde film Vidal carves out of his rushes at one last, desperate stab at originality. After that film decays into nothingness, the credits start rolling — to “Bonnie and Clyde.”

Combine tonight's screening of Irma Vep with a meal at Indie Food and Wine in our Film Center with our unbeatable Dinner and a Movie deal for just $25! And make sure to check out the rest of the 50 Years of the New York Film Festival lineup, including next Tuesday's screening of Abbas Kiarostami's masterpiece Taste of Cherry (NYFF '97), films by Mike Leigh, Terence Davies and more!

Below is a list of films that played alongside Irma Vep at NYFF '96:
Secrets and Lies
Mike Leigh, France/UK, 1996.

Thieves (Les Voleurs)
André Téchiné, France, 1996

The People vs. Larry Flynt
Milos Forman, USA, 1996.

Beyond the Clouds
Michelangelo Antonioni, France/Italy/Germany, 1996.

Breaking the Waves
Lars von Trier, Denmark, 1996.

“Culture Shock” – two films on nationalism, culture and their discontents:
Frantz Fanon: Black Skin, White Mask
Isaac Julien, UK, 1996.
Umm Kulthum: A Voice Like Egypt
Michal Goldman, USA, 1996.

Emigration, N.Y. (Die Geschichte einer Vertreibung)
Egon Humer, Austria, 1995. 

Fire
Deepa Mehta, Canada/India, 1996.

Gabbeh
Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Iran/France, 1996.

Le garçu
Maurice Pialat, France, 1995.

Goodbye South, Goodbye
Hou Hsiao-hsien, Japan/Taiwan, 1996.

illtown
Nick Gomez, USA, 1996.

Lilies
John Greyson, Canada, 1996.

Mahjong
Edward Yang, Taiwan, 1996.

My Sex Life… or How I Got Into an Argument
Arnaud Desplechin, France, 1996

Nobody's Business
Alan Berliner, USA, 1996. 

La Promesse
Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium/France/Tunisia/Luxembourg, 1996.

Salut cousin!
Merzak Allouache, France/Algeria, 1996. 

A Self-Made Hero
Jacques Audiard, France, 1996.

Sling Blade
Billy Bob Thornton, USA, 1996.

subUrbia
Richard Linklater, USA, 1996.

Suzanne Farrell: Elusive Muse
Anne Belle and Deborah Dickson, USA, 1996. 

Temptress Moon
Chen Kaige, China, 1996.

Three Lives and Only One Death
Raul Ruiz, France/Portugal, 1995.

Underground
Emir Kusturica, France/Germany, 1995. 

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