Why I Love… #93: Irma Vep

Year: 1996

Director: Olivier Assayas

Stars: Maggie Cheung, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Nathalie Richard

There are some songs you can’t separate from the movies they close. I’m not talking about songs that are edited to action within the story, but rather the moment it all ends and the credits crash in and a song plays. And that song and that moment become one. The moment a film ends should, in a world of ideals, be unforgettable. If the film has done its work it has moved you, or, in some small way, changed you. It’s images and ideas have played for whatever running time and then the final frame – regardless of what it shows – eschews the OK to contemplate what’s been seen as a whole. It’s time for a deep breath.

And a song plays. And that song and those feelings coalesce.

The most recent example I can think of, from personal experience, is I Am Not Your Negro, a fierce documentary that abruptly concludes with Kendrick Lamar’s ‘The Blacker The Berry’. If “perfect synergy” weren’t such a contemptibly corporate phrase it’d be the perfect descriptor. Kendrick’s vitriolic cut from To Pimp A Butterfly underlines everything discussed over the prior 90+ minutes. This choice and the execution of its appearance are superb.

Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep is perhaps my favourite example of a credits song and a movie merging into one. In this instance it is Luna’s cover of the Serge Gainsbourg/Bridgette Bardot classic ‘Bonnie & Clyde’.

Irma Vep, Assayas’ sixth feature, finds the French director in an especially playful mood as he casts Maggie Cheung as herself (or a version thereof). Here the esteemed Hong Kong actress is in Paris to take part in a remake of Louis Feuillade’s 1915 serial Les Vampires. Arriving on set, she finds an array of obstacles and situations that require deft navigation. The director, René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud), has a decidedly taciturn nature. What’s more he’s been quite inspired by the outfit Michelle Pfeiffer wore in Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, and instructs Cheung to perform in a figure-hugging latex costume.

Irma Vep is a film about film, and a film filled with film. Scenes from Les Vampires appear within it, unsurprisingly, but elsewhere other images and symbols further this sense of onion-like reality. Dingy video snippets of Cheung’s prior work Heroic Trio, for example, make an appearance. Pop culture is recognised as a part of the lives of people working in ‘the industry’ that create it. Crew members wear Schwarzenegger t-shirts. And, compounding the motif further, a film about the making of a film plays within Assayas’ film. Irma Vep telescopes freely.

Throughout Assayas lambasts French cinema’s reputation for middle class, art house sensibilities, yet feels decidedly part and parcel of this landscape. It is playful, but intelligent and layered. This itself is more than fitting. A line of dialogue that stands out is, “directors thrive on hypocrisy”. Assayas acknowledges his own contradictions.

Which brings us to the music used. There’s no score to Irma Vep, which may simply seem fitting as it is partly about the remake of a silent film (Vidal’s remake itself is intended to be silent). In interview Assayas has gone on record about his own distaste for score, arguing that it acts often as a shortcut to evoke emotion; that it provides bias. Yet he sparingly breaks his own rules with the use of source music. Cheung and gay costume designer Zoé (Nathalie Richard) take a ride through the city on a motorcycle and the sequence is underpinned with an upbeat, joyful musical selection. Later on, Sonic Youth’s ‘Tunic (Song For Karen)’ is used to heighten the sense of agitation – maybe even sexual arousal – in Maggie Cheung’s ‘character’ as she dons her costume for a spot of after hours burglary.

In this sequence, too, the line between film and reality blurs. Cheung appears to take on the characteristics of Irma Vep out-of-hours, stealing an extravagant sapphire necklace, only to discard in the pouring rain. The value of the jewellery is not the point; rather Cheung appears aroused by breaking society’s rules. It’s an act of defiance in a micro-climate of growing frustrations.

In this regard Assayas mines the film set for its comic potentiality. Imperfect reality crashes the party of making perfect fiction all too often. Vidal wants one of his actors to don a gimp hood in one swift action, but grows upset when the material makes this challenging. Throughout, Assayas evokes a sense of an industry of barely controlled chaos (something which frequently sounds like the truth). There’s a lot of happenstance. This is complimented in Assayas’ grab-n-go approach to making Irma Vep, which was shot in just two weeks on handheld 16mm, with no re-shoots allowed, applying a set of guerrilla filmmaking rules akin to Dogme 95.

One of these is the rejection of score but, as advised, source music is used to break this rule (or at least bend it). Still, these are exceptions, and silence dominates the negative spaces in the film otherwise. Irma Vep culminates – stunningly – with a screening of edited rushes from the aborted filming. In this stunning sequence, it is revealed that Vidal has drawn all over his compositions, outlining his actors, projecting squiggled lines from eyes and mouths. Rows of dots pepper Cheung’s face. Circles emanate from her mouth.


It’s a bracing, boundlessly enjoyable assault on the film – and on the senses of the viewer. Ultimately, Vidal was piecing together an experimental attack. The sound pops and crackles wildly and the sequence is best experienced with the volume cranked up loud.  The motifs are brazenly punk. They recall flyers, gig posters, record covers. Further pop referencing. And they provide a stark contrast to the perception of Vidal we have been given throughout the prior 90 minutes, though perhaps the clues were there all along.

It gives the feeling of surprise and discovery that comes with finding a film that you love. In a very real way it sums up how I felt watching all of this movie.

And, like the conversation repeated throughout Irma Vep, it’s a collision of stylistic sensibilities; the immediacy and the coolness of the pop world butting up against the cultured formality of art cinema.

Dizzying as it is, it is given greater punch by the arrival of Luna’s ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ cover. The song, which featured earlier in the film (again, as source), here acts as an exclamation mark, accentuating the cool pop collage of Assayas’ work. The song itself is, of course, about celebrity, about mythologising the world, about creating romanticised reality or documentary fiction. And its a cover. A remake. Perfect.

Irma Vep was a whirlwind production; messy, scrappy, but imbued with life because of this and it feels very much a product of instinct and intuition on the part of its creator. The plot is slight. Zoé’s infatuation with Maggie dominates the middle of the film but transpires (realistically) to be a dramatic nonstarter, while the film within the film collapses quickly and even Cheung disappears. Yet watching it I sense nothing but love and drive from those taking part and working behind the camera… and behind the camera. And when that song comes in as Assayas’ hand-drawn credits roll, it feels like a celebration. It feels like Assayas finally catching his breath, amazed that he’s been able to make a film like this. An exaltation. The song is sexy, goofy, rebellious, nagging. It’s a perfect fit for the movie. And I cannot think of one without thinking of the other.

A 2k remaster of Irma Vep is newly out on bluray in the UK, released by Arrow Academy.

6 thoughts on “Why I Love… #93: Irma Vep

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