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.

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Demonlover (2002) – Back from the Primitive

I recently re-read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902) for the first time since taking up criticism as an activity.  I originally read the novella as a very straight-forward conceptual breakthrough story in which a Victorian comes to realise the literally horrifying nature of existence.  However, upon further reflection it strikes me that, while sticking to this interpretation of the novella, there are three possible insights to take away from the book :

  • Firstly, that existence outside of the confines of civilisation is horrific.  Under this interpretation, the desiccated world of doilies, influential aunts and ancient men we see in the opening section of the novella are a price we have to pay in order to protect ourselves and escape from the Horror of the Hobbesian state of nature.
  • Secondly, that existence is whatever humanity makes of it.  Rather than building a new world or exporting the values of the European elites, colonialism has in fact opened the way for the rapaciously greedy to create a sort of hell on Earth.  A hell in which a man’s capacity to kill elephants and enslave the local population makes him a great man.  When Kurtz dies, he groans not for the horror in the world, but the horror he and his imitators have unleashed.
  • Thirdly, that Kurtz’s groans are a moment of conceptual break-through.  Under this view, humanity is trapped between the anguish and misery of being and the terrifying nothingness of non-being.  Whether a Dutch merchant or a Congolese fisherman, the dilemma is the same even if we do not necessarily realise it.  Kurtz, by venturing far outside the confines of his native culture, has realised the truth about existence.  A truth that horrifies him even as he dies.

These three different interpretations represent different solutions to the question of why existence is so horrifying :  Is existence tainted by our actions?  Is it something that is present in the world but escaped from thanks to civilisation?  Or is it something that permeates all of existence, but which we only catch a glimpse of from time to time when we are paying attention?

Critically panned at the time of its release, Olivier Assayas’ Demonlover (2002) is an attempt to provide an answer to this question by considering not only the ways in which humans treat each other but also the ways in which human civilisation deals with the savage nature of existence through its media and its institutions.

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