Cinematic Vocabulary – Three Moments from Irma Vep (1996)

So far, Cinematic Vocabulary has focused upon isolated cinematic scenes.  The reason for this is that, while matters of style and technique impact upon entire films, it is frequently easier to isolate these aspects of a film by filtering out issues of narrative and characterisation that tend to function more on the level of entire films than on that of individual scenes.  However, as with atoms and tables, there is a point where the small things come together to form something recognisably large.  This column is about how a series of scenes can link up in order to form a part of a wider thematic arc.

A few months back, I wrote about Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover (2002).  Intrigued by the cerebral and somewhat extreme piece of French film-making, I tracked down the best known of Assayas’ works, Irma Vep (1996).  Set behind the scenes of a fictional remake of Louis Feuillade’s silent era crime pulp Les Vampires (1915), Irma Vep casts Hong Kong martial arts veteran Maggie Cheung as herself playing the titular Irma Vep character.  Much like Truffaut’s Day for Night (1974), Irma Vep uses its film-within-a-film structure to comment upon the nature of film production in general and the health of the French film industry in particular.  The result is a hugely rewarding film filled both with touchingly funny moments of human frailty and insightful critiques of what French film has lost and where it should be heading.

Film Poster

Film Poster

The first scene I want to draw your attention to takes place about half-way through the film.  Production has begun and the over-the-hill and close-to-the-edge director has stormed off the set disgusted with the day’s rushes.  Shooting having run late, the crew all make their own way home leaving the film’s star all alone in a parking lot in a strange town that speaks a language she is unfamiliar with.  However, seeing her alone, the costume designer takes pity on her and takes her to a dinner with some friends.  Having had too much to drink, the costume designer blabs to her friend about how much she fancies Cheung only for the friend to then set about seducing Maggie on the costume designer’s behalf :

Much like the later Demonlover, Irma Vep is a film that is not only bilingual but which takes an active interest in the effects that different language capacities have upon social groups.  Here, Maggie (a fluent but non-native English speaker) finds herself being chatted to by a woman whose English is clearly limited.  Assayas rightly notices that in these types of situation, people make allowances for the linguistic short-comings of others.  They are more charitable, less literal and more forgiving of social faux-pas.  These allowances are ruthlessly exploited by the costume designer’s friend who begins by making small talk before asking more and more probing personal questions.  Cheung’s performance here is stunning (she would later win a best actress award for her part in another of Assayas’ films) as she tries to laugh off the questions or to deflect them without causing offence to the woman whose house she is standing in.  The hand is brought up to her mouth in an attempt to protect herself from the onslaught and she squirms and twists refusing to deny her possible sexual interest in women or in Zoe.

The scene is all about protocols of non-verbal communication but it is also about culture clash.  Traditionally, one of the biggest differences between French and Anglo-Saxon film has been the French openness not only in depicting sex but also depicting grey areas between relationships.  Yes there is love and there is loss in French film but there is also illicit sex, ill-considered affairs, unhealthy desire and sexuality transcending lust.  As Gerard Depardieu said in Menage (1986) “Never joke about these sorts of things, I’m going to bugger you and you’re going to get off…”

Maggie Cheung has suddenly found herself not just in France but actually inside French film,  a world she admits that she is not particularly familiar with (“We don’t get the big French films in Hong Kong”).  Cheung radiates with warmth in this scene.  Assayas left nothing up to chance, right down to the warm lighting and the horrible cuddly cardigan she is wearing.  The film wants us to fall for Maggie because she represents a future for French film.  A future that combines the clashing cultures of an internationalist outlook with the best of French traditions.  These theme is carried through to a second scene set later in the same evening.

There are two interesting elements here (aside from the lovely travelling shot at the beginning) and that is the music and the fact that it is set at a table.  The table full of friends is an icon of French cinema.  Like a cowboy riding off into the sunset.  From Tacchella’s sexually charged family gatherings in Cousin Cousine (1975), to the more sinister social functions of Chabrol’s Pleasure Party (1975) and This Man Must Die (1969), the communal experience of food, wine and high-minded chat appears again and again in French film and Assayas’ seems more than happy to recast it featuring a veteran of Hong Kong action cinema.  Musically, we also see a commentary upon French culture as it is a cover version by the band Luna of an old song originally recorded by Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot.  Again, we have the traditionally French combined with the cosmopolitan and the internationalist.  Because Bonnie and Clyde need not only be about a guy and a girl.  In fact, Bardot seems to be ahead of the curve by singing about a couple named “Bernie and Clyde” :

The final scene takes place after Zoe has deposited Maggie back at her hotel.  The pair separated on amicable terms with the evening’s discussion never having been touched upon.  Maggie returns to her room and decides to don the Irma Vep cat-suit (by the way, this scene is not safe for work after the first couple of minutes) :

Assayas’ perfectly captures Maggie’s restlessness.  She’s not only wired after a good evening out, she’s also wired because of being given the third degree over not only her sexuality but also her fetishes.  Her appetite has been whet and now she cannot rest.  She paces back and forth throughout the room like a tiger, accompanied by the opening to Sonic Youth’s song about Karen Carpenter “Tunic (Song for Karen)” with its dazzlingly conflicting feelings of being stuck somewhere unable to move and kind of liking where you are whilst also thinking about where you’ve been.  In fact, Assayas even seems to have inspired himself from some of the shots from the song’s video :

The scene addresses one of the film’s early speeches.  When Zoe and Maggie first meet, Zoe candidly says that it’s a stupid idea to remake Les Vampires and that the director should have stuck to more personal films grounded in real people and real experiences.  Assayas then presents us with Maggie, a real person in a real – if somewhat postmodern – situation and then shows us how she might be drawn into a life of crime… a life of sneaking into people’s rooms dressed in a rubber cat-suit and relieving them of their prized possessions.  The film brilliantly conveys the thrill to be had by living the life of Irma Vep.  The heady sense of power from sneaking past people’s outer defences and into their most private moments and places.  Again, Assayas shows us a possible future for French film.  A future that does not seek to plunder the past and give it a make-over featuring hot chicks in rubber, but which instead touches upon new subjects.  Subjects that might very well be informed by genre sensibilities but which remain rooted firmly in the realities of life and the constraints of the human condition.