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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