“For me, Irma Vep is very much a movie about grace, you know, like how grace can enlighten film making miraculously once in a while.”-Olivier Assayas, 2008
Tonight I’m curating a night of PROJECT FILM SCHOOL, my friend Gina’s phenomenally successful film night held at DCTV (they were featured in Time Out New York recently as a place to find a date!). I’m curating Olivier Assayas’s 1996 Irma Vep.
The great thing about Assayas is that he is never universally praised. I know that sounds odd, but think about how boring it can be to always to explore art that is 100% critic-approved. It is far more gratifying to enjoy something that others really dislike. For example, Janet Maslin, highly regarded film critic at the New York Times in the 90s and now a highly regarded book critic there, really disliked Irma Vep. Meanwhile Assayas’ newish outing Boarding Gate, a sex and intrigue global crime thriller with the equally controversial Asia Argento, got some truly awful reviews.Yet, I like it? Why is that? Am I lowbrow? Are you?
I’m not Assayas’s only fan; Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek praised Irma Vep as lovingly as a film critic could and was one of the few to laud Boarding Gate. MoMa did a retrospective of his work in 2003. And certainly Assayas is not without cred; he is the son of Jacques Remy, an important French filmmaker in the 1960s. Oh and he is Maggie Cheung’s ex. And he wrote for Cahiers du cinema. Did I mention he was an early champion of Hong Kong cinema and the long lost films of Guy Debord and the Situationist International?
Why does it get me all excited? Well quite simply I’m always amazed by Assayas’ work–particularly Irma Vep–because he represents how cinema is no longer tied to a nation, a language, an identity. He is truly postmodern in the best sense–his films are always a smoothly executed mishmash of cultures and different identities. Irma Vep was his first globally distributed film, and the first of many to incorporate English, non-French actors, and American music. Irma Vep is a film within a film, one starring Hong Kong goddess Maggie Cheung as Maggie Cheung as directed by an aging Godard-type, played by Godard-staple (and Truffaut’s iconic Antoine Doniel character) Jean Pierre Léaud. For a film that took a very short time to make and very little money, it is many things: a love ode to Maggie Cheung and her rare grace that transcends culture barriers; a commentary on film making; a satire of French artistes and intellectual snobbery; an homage to a great silent film series (Les Vampires by Louis Feuillade); and, as Stephanie Zacharek picks up on, a loving ode to the medium of film and the process of making a motion picture–even as ugly and crazy as it can be.
And still with all that going on, I find that the reconstruction of stylistic and thematic markers of the New Wave (comparisons to Godard’s satires like Made in the USA and, most commonly, to Truffaut’s Day for Night, are numerous) and the high pomo-ness take a back seat to the emotion and energy that run through Irma Vep. For a film that is slow in plot, it is invigorating to watch. It is funny, but not always in a laugh-out-loud way. It is also quite sad as it is a film that is very much about longing (both the costume designer Zoe and the director long for Maggie; Maggie longs for understanding and realization of her role; the rest of the crew longs for an ending; the French people long for John Woo, etc. etc. etc.).
Irma Vep is if nothing a truly multi-media film, in the same way that Wong Kar Wai and Darren Aronofsky’s films are–the images are tied to the music so seamlessly that you are completely enraptured scene after scene even if no one is talking or there is little physical action with the characters. It is primarily because of this that Assayas’ work feels so very fresh despite all the references to the old. Irma Vep is the perfect example with both Sonic Youth blaring one moment and then a new (well, new in the 90s) version of “Bonnie and Clyde” by American indie band Luna the next. The scene with “Bonnie and Clyde” playing at film party is a crucial one–it literally unmasks Maggie’s character and shows her vulnerability. But it is also so indicative of what Assayas does. He takes a very French concept or style (in this case Serge Gainbourg’s most well known song internationally), one that is almost common knowledge, and he reconfigures it to be something global and mesmerizingly contemporary and exciting and new!
I urge you to watch Irma Vep along with Assasays’s other feature films. Check out his short with Maggie Gyllenal in Paris J’taime. And listen while you watch. Also watch out for Kim Gordon’s bit part in Boarding Gate and Metric singer Emily Haines and Tricky (!!!) in Clean.
Hmmm, maybe I really just love Assayas because he is clearly the coolest person on the planet? Seriously,though: watch and listen.
I’ll help with the listening part right now:
Luna/Bonnie and Clyde Download (from Irma Vep)