In 1996 Maggie Cheung took on her first major international film, Irma Vep, and in doing so, illustrated the state of contemporary international cinema’s predicament of perpetual miscommunication and frustrated desire. Olivier Assayas’ 11th feature demonstrates French cinema’s post-Nouvelle Vague identity crisis and its complex relation to world cinema. Perhaps this is best summarized by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, who called Irma Vep an “exciting state-of-the-planet address”.
Indeed, the factors at play in the film extend past its cast of characters, all of whom are emblematic of an element of the production of cinema or the discourse around it. They often participate in both, mirroring Assayas’ belief that filmmaking and criticism should be seen as interwoven discourses and not parallel tracks. (Maule 87.) Outside of the frame’s borders lay three connected forces: French Cinema, Hollywood, and East Asian Cinema (Specifically Hong Kong and Taiwan.) Cheung’s casting is central to understanding the dynamics of French cinema in relation to these nations’ cinema.
Her casting in Irma Vep is double, as Cheung plays herself, and within the film is cast in a remake of the 1915-1916 French silent film crime serial Les Vampires. We follow her through the remake’s troubled production, from her (late) arrival on set all the way to her eventual firing. Her time in the production is marked by the gaze of everyone involved. She is representative of what the film could be, an indicator of the changes French cinema is going through, and a participant in the types of cinema that characters react to in specific and passionate ways.
Our lens into contemporary French cinephilia and filmmaking in Irma Vep is Maggie by way of director Renee Vidal (in another savvy casting move, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud.) He casts Maggie (For clarity, Cheung’s character will be referred to as Maggie, while the actor herself will be referred to as Maggie Cheung) based on seeing her in Johnnie To’s supernatural action film, The Heroic Trio (1993). After showing Maggie a VHS tape of the film, he says, “[I cast you] because I saw you in a very very cheap cinema in Marrakesh” he tells Maggie. “They showed this in Marrakesh?” she replies.
Her casting complicates Vidal’s remake, as it is in many ways a shot-for-shot remake of Les Vampires. It is silent; it takes place in similar locations and with similar actors, apart from his choice to cast Maggie. The plot point of his reasoning for casting Maggie directly connects the contemporary international making and exhibition of films. Vidal’s stake in Maggie is made clear on multiple occasions, with him telling her, “I am interested in you! You are more important than the character.” Through his watching Cheung, Vidal has built a personal relation and investment to her, so much that he has staked his film’s vision on her casting, apparently saying he would only do it if she were his Irma Vep.
This is a clear example of the cinephile tradition of a personal relation to work, in the classic sense of cinephilia, as “an extreme but logical extension of the regular filmgoer who loves the cinema with a ‘passion for seeing’ that is tied inextricably to the movie hall’s ‘theatre of shadows’ and the technology that makes it possible” (Klinger, 54) and in the contemporary sense, as Vidal is a collector too, owning several of Cheung’s films on VHS and Laserdisc (Klinger 55). His collection is a relatively new phenomenon, the low-cost collecting beginning with the VHS’ introduction in 1975 (Klinger). Vidal’s personal interest in Maggie follows in the cinephilic footsteps of French directors, beginning with the Neuville vague of the 1950s-’60s. This wave of filmmaking, based on the political ideology politique des auteurs, grew from their time as critics at Cahiers du Cinéma’s criticism being, arguably, the professionalization of cinephilia. Their obsessions and learning as film obsessives precepted a turn to filmmaking centred on individualist perspective, with the writer/director given center stage and the highest level of esteem (Hagener, 78)
A notable dynamic in the film is the imbalance in the export of French films abroad. The crew and journalists featured in Irma Vep often show substantial knowledge of Hong Kong cinema, while Maggie repeatedly notes that they see very few French exports in Hong Kong. In a scene where Maggie talks to a reporter, he praises John Woo as a “Very strong director, powerful!” before turning to ask her what she thinks of French cinema, which he apparently despises, describing it as self-centred and elite, and Vidal’s work being “typical of French cinema”. Though this character is framed as comic and a fool, these are, in some ways, views Assayas shared.
Assayas was a writer at Cahiers du cinéma before fully leaping into directing. Much of his writing centred on Hollywood and East Asian Cinema, particularly work from Taiwan and Hong Kong (Assayas, Jones, 2010.) This post-1980 era of Cahiers du cinéma was a return to criticism of current cinema, after the ’60s and ’70s, when the magazine had all but stopped covering current releases to focus on the cinema politique (Maule, 83). This burgeoning critical consciousness Assayas was a part of allows Irma Vep to meta-narratively invoke its own context within the cinematic framework, using its characters as perspectives in the tense shifts of a historically very important industry going through the growing pains which come with the globalized economy of 1996.
Vidal’s very pursuit of a remake of Les Vampires, a pre-new wave classic French film, is indicative of the state of French cinema as Assayas sees it. Vidal’s access to a global cinematic market allows him to cast a Hong Kong actor in his film. But Maggie serves as a lens and contrasting perspective of local French cinephilia. The history of French cinema pulsates around the production, from two political activist filmmakers watching their old work at a dinner party to Vidal’s collection of Maggie’s films, to the edited version of Vidal’s film we see in the last moments of the film (reminiscent of Stan Brakhage’s 1955 experimental short film, Reflections on Black) the archive and cinephilic tradition ping pongs around the characters. This constant casual presence of cinema is another trademark of the cinephile, particularly of the contemporary cinephile, as filmmaking and watching are presented as domestic pleasures for these industry workers.
Assayas’ relation with East-Asian cinema certainly informed the choice of Maggie Cheung as a central creative force within Irma Vep. In the film marking her international breakout (Lukenbill, 2015), Irma Vep uses Maggie’s domestic career within Hong Kong cinema as a star of art house and action films to frame Vidal’s Les Vampires remake. Louis Feuillade’s original crime serial was immensely popular in post-war France (Shea, 122). Furthermore, it became one of the first large-scale French Film exports in the United States (Delahousse, 25). It occupied a pop-culture space and was resented for that by many critics. In her book From Louis Feuillade to Johnny To: Olivier Assayas on the future of French Cinema, critic Louise Shea tracks how Assayas arrives at Irma Vep by contextualizing Les Vampires as follows:
Keen to elevate cinema above its status as a fairground entertainment and crown it as the septime art, early French film critics took it upon themselves to demarcate the films of Feuillade, which they considered popular forms of entertainment, from what one might call the art films of the day. They took Feuillade to task for pandering to the tastes of the masses, blaming the feuilleton genre, of which Feuillade had become the undisputed French master, for degrading French cinema.
Vidal’s context as an arthouse director, existing under the French government’s funding program for French cinema, places him, as the reporter in the film describes as “not for the public, only for intellectuals”. The fact that Vidal is directing this film separates Les Vampires from its original audience as a popular film, and Vidal’s silent, black-and-white remake is markedly out of date for 1996’s popular cinema. So, Maggie Cheung’s casting highlights this opposition. Her career trajectory is in some ways like that of Les Vampires itself, begging work in comedies as a supporting actor and action films as a hero before being cast by a figurehead director in the avant-garde Hong-Kong new wave movement. Her involvement in Irma Vep, both as actor and character, displays the most significant new force in the filmmaking industry: globalization and the global cinema market.
The neoliberal modal of free trade allowed incentives for international business, including film co-productions. Increased international discourse on film and the rise of new film industries (as exemplified by Hong Kong and Taiwan.) (Deshpande, Mazaj) strengthened international bonds allowed for filmmakers in local cinematic landscapes to pull not only influence but collaboration between distinct national forces. In earlier examples of international transit of filmmakers, such as the slew of European directors who travelled to work in Hollywood (such as Billy Wilder, Erich von Stroheim, and Alfred Hitchcock), they perform a cultural integration into their new filmmaking home. Where Irma Vep and Assayas’ other filmography differ from these earlier directors is at the forefronting of international identity. Irma Vep is a French production starring a Hong-Kong actor who grew up in the United Kingdom, and much of the dialogue in the film is in English, the second language of all present.
The experience of watching Irma Vep is singular. Its many crossing threads of plot, character, and context create a heady, bender-like experience. In a letter to director Kent Jones, Assayas says of the film, “The whole point is that the world is constantly changing and that as an artist one must always invent new devices, new tools, to describe new feelings, new situations… If we don’t invent our own values, our own syntax, we will fail at describing our own world.” Assaya’s syntax for understanding the world is cinema, cinema as representative of larger forces. Maggie’s presence in Irma Vep and Vidal’s Les Vampires is representative of a globalized market. Her filmography and personal history are echoes of wider trends. Individuals decentralized from one place, bouncing around the globe.
The film’s final scenes are our best insight into these themes. Penultimately, after Vidal suffers a mental breakdown, a backup director is brought in, one of Vidal’s peers. Just as Vidal staked his Les Vampires on Maggie, his replacement stakes his participation on her ousting, saying, “Irma Vep is Paris, she’s the Paris underworld. She’s working-class Paris… Les Vampires isn’t Fu Manchu, right?”
In Vidal’s replacement, we find the resistance to the globalization of film, of the decentralization in the local market. His viewpoint is binary and oppositional and not conducive to the growth that is so needed in French cinema as presented in the film. In their book World Cinema A Critical Introduction, Shekhar Deshpande and Meta Mazaj warn of this viewpoint by presenting an alternative: “Rejecting a binary oppositional view of centers and margins, the dominant and the powerless, they ask that we shift our perspective. Conceived from the periphery world cinema appears quite different, the canons disappear and various local practices assume focal points.” Via Irma Vep Assayas uses Cheung to advocate for specificity in film, for innocence in the face of film history, to be original always, so as not to fail at describing our own world.
Assayas, Olivier. director. Irma Vep. Performance by Maggie Cheung and Jean-Pierre Léaud. Criterion Channel. Accessed 15 April 2021.
Delahousse, Sarah. “Reimagining the Criminal: The Marketing of Louis Feuillade’s Fantômas (1913–14) and Les Vampires (1915) in the United States”. Studies in French Cinema. 2014.
Deshpande, Shekhar A., and Mazaj, Meta. World Cinema: A Critical Introduction. Routledge. 2018. Accessed 10 April 2021.
Hudson, Dale. “‘Just Play Yourself, ‘Maggie Cheung”: Irma Vep, Rethinking Transnational Stardom and Unthinking National Cinemas”. Screen. vol. 47, no. 2, 2006, pp. 213–232.
Jones, Kent, and Assayas, Olivier. “Oliver Assayas Regis Dialogue with Kent Jones“. Walker Art Center. Minneapolis. Speech transcript. 2010.
Lukenbill, Mark. “Heroine Chic: Female Celebrity and Identity in the Films of Olivier Assayas”. Mubi Notebook. 8 May 2015. Accessed 15 April 2021.
Hagener, Malte. “How the Nouvelle Vague Invented the DVD: Cinephilia, New Waves and Film Culture in the Age of Digital Dissemination”. Aniki: Revista Portuguesa Da Imagem Em Movimento. vol. 1, no. 1, pp. 73–85. 2014 SOFIA. Accessed 15 April 2021.
Maule, Rosanna. Beyond Auteurism: New Directions in Authorial Film Practices in France, Italy and Spain Since the 1980s. Intellect. 2008. Accessed 10 April 2021.
Rosenbaum, Jonathan. “Life Intimidates Art [IRMA VEP].” Chicago Reader. 13 June 1997. JONATHAN ROSENBAUM. Accessed 9 April 2021.
Shea, Louise. “From Louis Feuillade to Johnny To: Olivier Assayas on the Future of French Cinema.” French Forum. vol. 34, no. 3, 2009, pp. 121-36. JSTOR Accessed 17 April 2021.
To, Johnnie. The Heroic Trio. China Entertainment Films. 1992.