Writer/director Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep is many things at once. It’s a comedic look at the making of a film, capturing the swirling chaos as various departments and personalities come together to create art. It’s a dramatic piece exploring how rumors are more powerful than truth, that art is valued over the artist, and that preservation of the sacred doesn’t necessarily save it from the profane. In fact, Irma Vep appears to lambast those who favor safety, refusing to reimagine and reinvigorate, while also poking at those who apprise film in a binary perspective: either solely for the inteligencia or solely for the general public. Lead by Maggie Cheung (In the Mood for Love, Hero), Irma Vep takes the audience on a journey behind the scenes of moviemaking, challenging them every step of the way. You can experience Assayas’s film restored in 2k with 5.1 surround sound and with a bevy of special features in this two-disc edition from Criterion.
Inspired by Maggie Cheung’s (Cheung, playing an alternate version of herself) work in one of the Heroic Trio films, French director René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud) hires her as the lead role in a cinematic modern remake of the 1915 silent film serial Les vampires titled Irma Vep, an anagram of “vampire.” Brought alone to a country where she doesn’t speak the language, Cheung balances the various personalities on set and the desires to make the best work possible while battling the sense that no one really knows what they want or what they’re doing.
The best way to describe Irma Vep for those unfamiliar is that you must allow it to marinate before judging. The chaos of Assayas’s direction recalls cinéma vérité as he captures the swirling, often ferocious nature of filmmaking: the tightness of quarters as different departments make homes when on location, as well as the closeness of cast with the crew members they spend the most time with or come to rely on. All of this is perfectly captured within the performances from Cheung, Vidal, and Nathalie Richard as Zoé whose line delivery feels spontaneous and in the moment, rather than scripted. If you go into the film knowing nothing about filmmaking, you may walk away a touch scarred from the often volatile language spouted from department heads toward staff or crew about the director. If you go into the film as a general audience member, you may agree with the reporter who challenges Maggie as to the need to make a film like Irma Vep when it seems to be of interest to the smallest section of the populace (inteligencia) versus creating something new and widely appealing. If you’re a cinephile through-and-through, you’ll see the comedy everywhere, from the source of origin for Maggie’s costume (Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman), to the mishaps with scene blocking, and even Maggie trying so hard to get into character. Irma Vep is a layered experience that can be enjoyed no matter the perspective, but the depth of appreciation certainly shifts depending on the background of the audience.
While that surely seems like an obvious statement to some, there are so many who enjoy cinema without engaging in analysis that it bears repeating here: give yourself time to think on Irma Vep before passing judgement. Allow yourself to consider how Assayas positions characters in a scene, how almost everything the audience hears about another character is hearsay, and how the film wants its audience to consider whether any film is worth making without some kind of vision behind it. Even as Vidal loses control of his set, and, somewhat, his mind, the creation of Irma Vep with Maggie as his star comes from a place of rejuvenation of a past idea, something which bristles the traditionalists. Even if the art is bad, the mere fact that it tried to say something is worth applauding. When we churn out the millionth superhero film, following the same storyline, there is no art, only factory-like reproduction. Is it entertainment? Most often yes. But is it saying something? Does it present an idea and does it move us forward? There is a place for populist entertainment and a place for niche, but, without niche, we as a community run the risk of losing our imagination, our drive to push forward.
If this idea of ideological exploration is your cup of tea, once you finish the film, make your next stop the essay from critic Aliza Ma. Irma Vep is this reviewer’s first Assayas film (yep, still haven’t seen 2016’s Personal Shopper, which is supposedly fantastic), so I can’t speak to his career and the perspective of his films. From the beginning of Ma’s essay, you know that you’re in the hands of someone who has poured over the writer/director’s work for some time. The best thing about an essay like this is it will not only enlighten and potentially elucidate certain elements of the film you might’ve missed, but it will help open your horizons to his other works. For instance, without the knowledge of Assayas work, it’s clear to any audience that the film is exploring the disorder behind filmmaking from the varied personalities to the unplanned accidents on set, but many may not consider the extra layer of the language barrier. Maggie speaks fluent English and Chinese, but not French; whereas her director and crew only speak French and some English. Imagine the frustration of both Maggie and Vidal as star and director in trying to convey or capture what it is the other needs to know in order to nail a scene. This idea is one of many Ma explores in her essay and is well worth the read.
Speaking of the bonus materials, everything is shared across two discs. The film is housed on disc one along with a brand new January 2021 interview with Assayas and two 2003 interviews with Assayas and critic Charles Tesson and Cheung and Richard, respectively. The behind-the-scenes featurette of Irma Vep is also included with disc one. Where things get really exciting for the types of film nerds that love Criterion’s releases, is that the second disc is going to feel like finding Eldorado. Why? Disc two houses a deeper dive into Les vampires with a 2013 documentary focused on the actor who first originated the role of Irma Vep in the silent film (titled Musidora, the Tenth Muse); the sixed episode of the 10-episode serial, titled Hypnotic Eyes; and two different featurettes from Assayas: a June 2020 address of his view of the current state of cinema and a short film titled Man Yuk: A Portrait of Maggie Cheung from 1997. The final bonus feature being the black-and-white raw footage (called rushes) of Maggie shooting the movie within the movie. It’s really only her running across a rooftop on loop, but it may be interesting for some.
When it comes to the technical aspects, it’s worth noting that one of the charms of Irma Vep is its rawness, giving off a sense of peeking behind a curtain to get a glimpse of something which only gets paraded about when it’s done up. Though the film is a 2K restoration, giving it a newer sense of clarity, it maintains that same sense of spontaneity via a visible grain. In some 4K restorations, like 2020’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, the image is so cleaned up that the grain is only visible in a few instances, making it feel like a more recent, shot-on-digital, film. This is fine for a film like Ghost Dog, but Irma Vep needs that harsh, almost punk rock feel in order to maintain its exploratory, documentary-esque visual edge. Seeing as the visual restoration was approved by Assayas, this is most certainly the best version to view the film. In terms of sound, while it features a 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack, the film itself isn’t one which *requires* immersive noise. It only truly matters that the dialogue comes through and it’s crisp and clean, making even the busiest or dialogue heavy sequences easy to follow.
As a first step into the work of Assayas, Irma Vep is certainly intriguing and it’s never a waste of time to watch Cheung at work. If you’re a fan of both, you’ll likely find Irma Vep to be a worthwhile addition to your collection, Criterion or otherwise, especially given the lengthy and engrossing bonus materials. One of my favorite things about these releases is how the bonus materials don’t just serve to prop up the film, but to expound upon the themes within. In this case, that also includes the opportunity to learn more about the source material. Hard to beat that opportunity.
Irma Vep Special Features
- New 2K digital restoration, approved by director Olivier Assayas, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray
- New interview with Assayas (28:37)
- On the Set of Irma Vep, a behind-the-scenes featurette (30:01)
- Interview from 2003 with Assayas and critic Charles Tesson (33:46)
- Interview from 2003 with actors Maggie Cheung and Nathalie Richard (17:27)
- Musidora, the Tenth Muse (2013), a documentary on the actor who originated the role of Irma Vep (1:07:55)
- Les vampires: Hypnotic Eyes (1916), the sixth episode in Louis Feuillade’s silent-film serial (58:50)
- Cinema in the Present Tense, a June 2020 address on the state of cinema by Assayas (46:21)
- Man Yuk: A Portrait of Maggie Cheung, a 1997 short film by Assayas (5:01)
- Black-and-white rushes for the film (3:53)
- English subtitle translation and English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
- PLUS: An essay by critic Aliza Ma
- New cover by Jillian Adel
Available on Blu-ray and DVD from The Criterion Collection April 27th, 2021.