Irma Vep

(Olivier Assayas, France, 1996)


From Her to Eternity

"Without windows, there is no freedom". This remark in Trafic magazine by Jean Douchet about the films of Jean Renoir could also be applied to Olivier AssayasIrma Vep, which makes particularly ingenious and poetic use of ordinary, domestic windows.


In an early scene of the film, René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is directing a scene from his fraught contemporary remake of Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires (1916). A vampire (of sorts) decked out in latex makes her way to a window, stands on its ledge and (as the natural sound dies away to ghostly, chilling effect), falls in a dead faint, away below the frame.


Later, in the behind-the-scenes world of the film, this same woman – Maggie Cheung – is summoned to Vidal’s house, where the director is suffering a massive nervous breakdown. After much confusion and commotion, Maggie is abruptly dismissed from the scene – so she casually scrambles out the front window and out into the street.


This superb rhyme captures so much that is remarkable about Irma Vep – its dream-like intermingling of different levels of fantasy and reality; its light, Alice in Wonderland air; and the giddy way it skips from scene to scene and character to character.


For many Australian viewers, Irma Vep functioned as an introduction to Assayas. His career as a feature director, however, began ten years previously, and his lively involvement in film culture dates back still further.


Assayas is a critic-turned-filmmaker, and as a devout cinephile he maintains a highly reflective, critical attitude towards the many films he sees. Assayas joined the team at Cahiers du cinéma in the late ’70s; Serge Daney served as a kind of intellectual father-figure to him (as his later film, Late August, Early September [1998], reflects). For a period of five years, Assayas wrote vigorously and prolifically on his favourite European auteurs (Bergman, Tarkovsky, Bresson), on American genre cinema, on the special effects revolution, and much else. He was heavily involved in two special issues of Cahiers, "Made in USA" (1982) and "Made in Hong Kong" (1984).


This was a fertile period in the history of Cahiers: under the inspired direction of Daney, the magazine endeavoured to move away from its political and theoretical excesses of the ’60s and ’70s by renewing its interests in aesthetics and popular cinema. Yet Cahiers held onto its radical spirit by opposing a burgeoning middlebrow art cinema on one hand, and a formulaic mainstream hipness on the other. Assayas’ opinions still evoke the polemics of this period – now as then, he champions what is passionate, rigorous, risk-taking and truly innovative in cinema, whether this innovation emerges in a huge mainstream blockbuster or a lowly avant-garde short.


Assayas’ feature work began in 1986 with Désordre (aka Confusion), a dark, lively film about a rock band in crisis. His career and critical reputation were cemented in Europe by his third feature, Paris s’éveille (1991). Although Cold Water (L’Eau froide, 1994) – Assayas’ vivid contribution to French television’s "Boys and Girls of Their Time" series – raised some attention on the international Film Festival circuit, none of his films until Irma Vep have been distributed in English-speaking countries. This is a pity because – as Louis Skorecki once suggested in Libération – Assayas is "the great Mannerist of modern cinema", someone who combines tight, compact narrative structures with a freedom of style and a lyrical expressivity that is truly breathtaking.


* * *


A friend told me: the films of Chantal Akerman or Philippe Garrel move like a piece of classical, concert music, but the films of Assayas (and others of his generation: Leos Carax, Arnaud Desplechin) move like a rock song a good rock song, by Bob Dylan or John Cale or The Fall.


How appropriate for this filmmaker who once worked as a critic for a magazine called Rock and Folk, and whose films jump to life (like with Carax or Tarantino) whenever music is suddenly married to image, animating that image and energising it … a filmmaker who spoke of the precise placement of a Ramones song in one of his films as being akin in effect to a window being opened, air blasting into a previously locked, airless, hermetic cinematic space.


And what beautiful music in Irma Vep (anagram for vampire, as per the silent Feuillade serial starring the remarkable Musidora), a sparse but acute selection of tracks: Serge Gainsbourg’s "Bonnie and Clyde" (covered by American band Luna), Sonic Youth, Ali Farka Toure’s lilting guitar instrumental “Soukora” from the Talking Timbuktu Album …


Irma Vep is a very full and entrancing, in fact euphoric film. It’s a whole world of surface textures spread out over the screen; one of those films that (in my experience) takes you inside – or, perhaps more precisely, plasters you, moves you all over the pictorial surface. (Assayas is one of the most self-consciously painterly of filmmakers – everything is washes and smudges, spirals and passageways for the restless spectatorial eye, tending towards a kind of lyrical, impressionist pixilation: the dancing lights on the water during a moped ride, flashes of a body’s movement illuminated high-beam in the rain. And how wonderful to see this film at the Rotterdam Film Festival on the huge screen of the Pathe 1, where I felt I was almost swimming inside the film, bounded and surrounded by it on all sides). I remember certain films of the ‘80s that afforded me this sensation of ‘going inside’, or travelling all over – Blade Runner (1982), Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), the latter best seen (as I did) in a state of intoxicated hyper-stimulation.


Irma Vep is a film that brings together so much all the wildly diverse kinds of films that the director likes from Coppola-style commercial energy to the Lettrist avant-garde, from late Godard to early rock video, with many stops in-between, and many hybrids blooming from the constant collision and movement and mutation of styles. In its high-wire comedy, there’s even a feeling and this is an unfashionable reference for the Cahiers de cinéma culture from which Assayas emerges for Altman’s modular and micro-cosmic multi-character comedy, floating lives and floating punchlines in a great, restless, floating world (Beyond Therapy, 1987).


In particular, it’s a film with a strong, strong feeling for some marvellous, inspiring, composite dream of the ‘60s – some divine myth of that time: Nouvelle Vague, Lettrism and Situationism, Franju’s Judex (1963), Gainsbourg, Jean-Pierre Léaud and Lou Castel (rebel-icons of the period) and the salamander Bulle Ogier too, Chris Marker’s radical train-rolls-on militant cinema …


It’s a film not with a theme but a subject, some kind of nominal centre, almost a MacGuffin, around which everything else spins and swirls. And so it’s a Deleuzian movie, with its rhizomes and flight-lines and seismic shifts and quakes, but also, for all that, a surprisingly coherent work. It’s a cubist mosaic built around a single, central figure, Hong Kong star Maggie Cheung as (in some weird sense) herself. She’s a refractory character, in fact a doubled or bifurcated refractory character: who is Maggie Cheung exactly, what does she want; and who is this character she is to play or incarnate, Irma Vep, what are we to make her today?


The soul of the movie is its fix on creation, on the creative process, no matter how chaotic, how self-destructive, how comically absurd it gets – Assayas says it’s a film about diverse people trying to make this subject, this character or figure or centre of Irma Vep, mean something to them. They have to take it, take her, inside themselves somehow, give birth to this creature. For the actor, this means a becoming-Irma one night, in the rain, in the so-called real world; for the poor director Léaud, who fails miserably, it means trying to find a new ‘distance’, a new regard, a new gaze from which to see this creature; for the director who replaces him (Castel, muttering that this or that film is a load of shit), it means installing a new actress, a new muse in the part. Each one must find their way in, take something into themselves before anything can come out, be created. As Godard said in his own Deleuzian phase, circa 1980 and Sauve qui peut: it’s all a question of inputs and outputs …


In his discussion with Bérénice Reynaud about Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1974) in Sight and Sound, Assayas explains that his movies are about gazes, multiple gazes, gazes in circulation that mark out but never quite construct or fill some central point, some nominal subject. But that subject is fugitive, even though it’s ‘held’ there tightly, in that criss-crossing web of glances and desires and narrations. The lovely coherence of the movie itself feels like that: a mesh, but a precarious mesh that could fall apart at any moment, that could be blown away by a puff of wind. Not classical, but not wildly ‘heterogeneous’ either: there’s some kind of binding there. Maggie, or Irma, or bifurcated Maggie-Irma, she’s constructed at the busy intersection of all the constructions made of ‘her’, all the grabs and games and psychic, desiring investments: the woman on the crew who fancies her as a dyke, the bullish interviewer who wants to channel his anti-art cinema diatribe through her, Léaud who wants her to be some radiant star spanning the silent era and modern pyrotechnics (the magical bridge between Musidora and Michelle Pfeiffer or Halle Berry as Catwoman!), the actor who starts barking at her during a private rehearsal, the functionaries who just want to see her as a body deposited on or off a plane, the unit manager who calculates her cost … and many more.


It’s a film about a team, about group dynamics (the Altman echo again), a team on the cusp of the Fitzgeraldian/Deleuzian crack-up – everyone a hyper-individualist, a satellite spinning off in his or her own direction, madly weaving his or her own cocoon of activity and space, not a team devoted to that ‘collectivist’ work which is implied by the film’s ’60s dream … It’s not, as Godard gives us in Contempt  (1963) and Passion (1982), a production pivoting on the conflictual axis of director (beleaguered, visionary, solitary) against producer (fascist, capitalist, philistine): here it’s the group, the groupuscule, as veritable war machine, at war against the world, at war against itself. Divisive, auto-destructive, forever splitting off into smaller units and factions: i.e., just like a real film set, with its incredibly prodigious, creative, spontaneous and endlessly mutable rituals of back-biting, gossip, allegiances formed and dissolved and reformed.


Assayas is fantastic with the structure and texture of life-narratives hooking in and out of each other, in and out of some rush or flow, some direction or tunnel created purely by the speedy swirl of phenomena and events. His special gift as a film artist: his intro’s and outro’s, how a character comes in and how they go out usually abruptly, at both ends of the text they come in breathless, in the middle of some cross-fire, and they ‘go in the splice’, often without any ceremony of farewell (the fate for Léaud, and even for Maggie herself, an instantly fallen star). Think of the nightmarishly comic sequence devoted to Léaud’s breakdown in the middle of the night: Maggie being whisked to his house, inside his sanctum, out again into the street, strange characters emptying and filling these spaces at an alarming rhythm (like Tarantino or Moretti, Assayas shows us human, physical gauntlets at every turn: the steps it takes to reach a den or a hideaway or a secret, fatal space, and equally the steps it then takes to extricate oneself, to back up and out). Or the entire micro-story of the Natalie Richard character, who comes in jabbering like a screwball heroine and is left, frazzled, dumped suddenly on a street corner by the object of her desire, deposited in this Abel Ferrara-style strobed blur. Or the final surge of another story with Castel and his replacement star: their clandestine meeting and plotting, his entry onto the scene of the crime known as the film set.


Assayas (like Ferrara, like Cassavetes, like Pialat) is a poet of the media res, the scene which is already in full motion when we are thrust into it, and which is never allowed to reach its normal point of completion or exhaustion; scenes that are filled and emptied wildly of bodies, as in the splendid gag where everyone flees the disastrous rushes screening in every conceivable kind of vehicle, a big, jazzy blur of commotion and motion, leaving Maggie alone and unchaperoned at the front door, just one second too late for any possible rendezvous. As always, as in Techine or Cronenberg, lives and stories that proceed through chance encounters, collisions, jump-starts, digressions and deviations that take one very far from home …


The Irma Vep within Irma Vep is an impossible film, an impossible object. Cubistic, again: patched together like Frankenstein from ungainly fragments, an image here, a shot there, a stray line of sound or dialogue, a glimpsed bit of staged mise en scène or an overheard piece of direction. It comes together unsuccessfully only as tatty rushes or in even more degraded, chiselled form as a Lettrist collage, a modernist scrap left behind by a cracked director. (Everyone reads the referent of the final scene and its pictorial deformations differently as ’20s avant-garde graphism, as Brakhage-style scratching, as Kenneth Anger colouring, even as Norman McLaren doodling but I see Lettrist chiselling.) Jonathan Rosenbaum speaks of the special fragments we see the rushes, the ‘assembly’, and also Maggie’s midnight jaunt as a jewel thief as incommensurable and contradictory, as evidence of an unconscious, automatic écriture, "a dream dreamt by the narrative" (as in Rivette’s dreamiest, most radical experiments).


And, more broadly, as a film about film, Assayas’ Irma Vep is a strange collocation of postmodern longings, filtered through that mad dream of the ’60s: every quoted extract woven into the overall collage of the film (the clip from Marker, and from the Hong Kong action marvel The Heroic Trio), alongside all the battered fragments of the movie-within, come at us as ghosted, washed-out, distorted and distended, pulled through some bath or fog or grain: remnants or scraps from a dusty, lost world, now filtered only as epiphenomenal sensations, traces, memories and wishes. The euphoria of the film comes from this: this loss, this diving headfirst into the abyss of the lost, as if in a hopeless quest to retrieve it. Assayas accepts a certain light, giddy, speedy postmodern emptiness (or at least superficiality) as his essential ground-tone, his background. This is where the problematic of creation and creativity, animation and investment, becomes urgent and meaningful: precisely in relation to this culture which is just (as Léaud says in droll despair) “images of images”, copies and remakes without any real sense or rhyme or reason. But there is still a longing, some desire, which can activate these lost images in this, our perpetually lost world.

MORE Assayas: Demonlover, Irma Vep TV SERIES

© Adrian Martin March 1997

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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