The Unsung – ‘Irma Vep’

Back in the 1990s, I saw a lot more movies than I do today. Mostly, it’s having kids – they take up a ton of your time and money, so it’s just harder to do things that don’t involve them. So I haven’t seen a movie in the theater for quite some time, and while I still watch them at home, I can’t even do that too often. But back in the Nineties, when my wife and I were in our 20s, we could go see a lot of movies, and luckily, we lived in Portland, which had a phenomenal art scene (it probably still does, but I don’t live there anymore). They had a lot of cool movie theaters that played cool, weird movies. It was in one of those, in 1996, that we saw Irma Vep.

Irma Vep is a typical “art” film in that it made no money and probably not a lot of people saw it. However, it’s also an unusual “art” film in that it stars Maggie Cheung, who seemed like too famous of an actor at the time to do the movie. It’s directed by Olivier Assayas, who was dating her at the time (they married for a brief time not long after the movie came out), so that makes it a bit clearer. So we get a fairly well known actor who usually stars in Hong Kong movies plopped into a French art-house flick. Things get weird.

The “plot,” such as it is, is thus: Cheung plays herself, and she comes to Paris to star in a movie directed by a once-great director who’s fallen on hard times (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud). The director, who is ironically named René Vidal, is remaking a French silent classic from 1915, Les vampires, which is a serial that clocks in at seven hours and is regarded as one of the longest films of all time. Cheung is playing Irma herself, which is an anagram of “vampire.” The story doesn’t have anything to do with actual vampires – it’s about a gang of thieves who go around thieving. Cheung, who doesn’t know any French, is thrown into an already troubled production, and eventually the director has a nervous breakdown, the film gets a new director, and he doesn’t want Cheung in the movie, so she leaves. At the very end, we see a bit of what the original director had edited, and it’s … something, all right. And … curtain!

So yeah, not much happens. The movie is a satire, mostly of the French cinema scene, and as such it’s often savagely funny while at other times just savage. Cheung is luminous, and it’s obvious Assayas probably loved her a little already, and people within the film definitely do. The costumer on the film, a bisexual woman played by Nathalie Richard, befriends Cheung with the idea of coming onto her, but nothing happens in that regard. Richard, however, takes her to a sex shop to buy the movie’s signature piece of clothing – a latex catsuit that Cheung will wear when she’s thieving as Irma. Richard obviously digs it, but so does Cheung, to the point where one night, she puts it on and sneaks around her hotel, ending up on the roof in a rainstorm. At another point, an interviewer wants her to decry the fading director and his “art-house” movies, because the interviewer is a big fan of her work with Jackie Chan and the ouevre of such thespians as Mr. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mr. Jean Claude van Damme. She refuses to, and the conversation gets even more awkward than the language barrier would normally make it (the interviewer speaks English, but poorly).

While the plot is almost non-existent, the movie has several layers, and it’s fascinating to watch them play out. At the center is Cheung, who plays the part of “Maggie Cheung” very well, seemingly untouched by the grubby world into which she is thrust and attempting to connect with a culture she doesn’t quite understand. Cheung isn’t clueless, but she is bit naïve, and that works well in the context of what’s going on around her. The camera loves Cheung, and her beauty becomes a central focus of the movie, one which can be read on a textual and metatextual level. The director in the film, Vidal, hires her without an audition, because he saw one of her kung-fu movies (The Heroic Trio, which I haven’t seen) and thought she’d be great. He hires her because of her beauty and her physicality, even though she tells him a lot of it was stunt people. The idea of Orientalism is prevalent throughout the movie, as Cheung is the exotic woman from the East, and men (and one woman, at least) fall for her not because of who she is, but because of what she represents. We can expand this to Assayas himself, as he is obviously besotted with Cheung as well. When she gets into the catsuit, she becomes even sexier, and Assayas films her very intimately. When Cheung can’t sleep after an eventful night, she puts it on, sneaks into a room where a woman, naked, is arguing with her lover, and steals a fancy necklace. She climbs onto the roof and throws the necklace away, all while the rain comes down and makes her even sexier. This part is not “filmed” for the movie-within-the-movie, and so we see that it’s Assayas himself who is filming Cheung surreptitiously, like a Peeping Tom. It’s the most disturbing moment in the movie, because Cheung, while feeling empowered by the catsuit, also seems most vulnerable because the camera is almost stalking her. Of course, Richard’s character is turned on by Cheung, as is the actor who plays the lead in the movie. None of them, it’s clear, know very much about Cheung. She’s an ideal, not a person. When, toward the end, we see the cut of the film that the original director put together, this comes into much clearer focus. The satirical aspects of the cut we see are obvious, but the way Cheung appears also makes clear the darker side of her casting, despite the fact that she is, naturally, gorgeous in the “film.” There’s also the idea of the way morals and the standards of beauty change. In the original, Irma Vep (played by Musidora) is far more zaftig than Cheung, and she wears a black bodysuit that perhaps was scandalous in 1915 but doesn’t elicit much outrage in 1996 or today. Cheung needs to be updated to a latex catsuit, obviously. I mean, that’s just logical!

The movie zips along – it clocks in at about 90 minutes – as Assayas makes his points (and some, perhaps, that he hadn’t intended) and gets out. It’s a clever movie, and it has a lot more on its mind than just a satire of a film production falling apart. It’s a good vehicle for Cheung, who had been cranking out Hong Kong movies since 1984 but hadn’t made much of a dent internationally (she never did, really, although she’s terrific in Chinese Box and Hero, and now it seems she’s retired from acting, which is too bad), and it’s a fascinating look at a film culture Americans don’t see that often, even though it will be familiar. There are weird parts in it, but it’s not a particularly weird movie. And it’s quite funny at times.

I swear she doesn’t spend a lot of time in the catsuit – look, here she is in regular clothes!

Irma Vep is streaming on the new HBO Max, if you feel like watching it. I love having physical copies of things, so I linked to that below, if you’re in the mood. It’s a nifty movie, and you don’t have to wear a mask while watching it!

6 Comments

  1. Alaric

    I would have liked to post a link here to a wonderful discussion of the original Les Vampires serial, written by connoisseur of gialo, eurospy, and many other things, Keith Allison; but, unfortunately, it disappeared from the Web a few years ago. However, a slightly-rewritten version can be found in this book.

      1. Alaric

        Just a warning, if you do get the book- Allison’s a great writer, online, but this is his first actual book, and one definitely gets the sense that he put it out as it is because he was afraid he’d keep tinkering with it forever, rather than because it was actually ready to publish. It’s interesting, and parts of it are great (including entire chapters), but it definitely could have used some more editing, and a little reorganization. having said that, I absolutely don’t regret buying it, or recommending it to people who might be interested.

  2. Jeff Nettleton

    Watched the film after I started delving deeply into French pulp literature, thanks to the Tales of the Shadowmen anthologies. Irma Vep is routinely used within the stories in the books (as is Judex, a hero of another long serial from Louis Feuillade, and Fantomas) and an interesting character, as a senior member of the Vampire gang, in an era where women were not in positions of power. I’ve watched some of the serial, which is quite good and very atmospheric.

    This wasn’t exactly what I expected (I knew it wasn’t a direct adaptation) but it was…..interesting. At times. I think some of it works much better than other and It is compelling in fits and starts. Cheung is consistent all through it; but, at the same time, I think you see why she never became the international figure that Michelle Yeoh did (co-star in The Heroic Trio). It’s not that she is a bad actress; far from it. It’s more that she is a bit more limited in her range. She is stronger in comedy and even her action stuff tended to have her in more comedic roles. In the Heroic Trio, she is a bounty hunter who is rather reckless and provides the comic relief. However, she played fish-out-of-water well (probably not hard) and she does portray the spell that she falls under.

    Heroic Trio is a pretty good movie, though it has some dull moments and weird staging. It tries to be an action flick, a horror movie, a romance and a few other things, and gets a bit schizophrenic. The action scenes are great and it is one of the better Asian superhero attempts; or, at least, a more original one.

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