Olivier Assayas’ 1996 masterpiece Irma Vep marked a turning point in a polarised France. The film, casting Maggie Cheung as the heroine and giving her a lesbian love interest, spoke to the subversion of a white-centric, heteronormative French New Wave – while foreshadowing the inclusion of marginalised voices in French cinema today. Emma Pirnay looks back on a classic to explore how boundaries were broken.
Maggie Cheung walks into a Parisian film studio, visibly disoriented. Through glass walls and windows, we witness overlapping scenes within Anima Films, an art film facility. In one room, a casting director screens an actor. In another, a production assistant juggles between a prop revolver and a phone call. In the background, we hear the familiar whir of Xeroxes and the tinny echo of phones ringing. Part of this ambient noise, which is treated as just another part of office life, is that of set members bickering. The first thing to notice about Olivier Assayas' 1996 film Irma Vep is that Maggie Cheung plays herself, or at least an analogous version of herself in it. She's been cast in a remake of Louis Feuillade's Les Vampires, a silent crime serial produced in the early twentieth century.
In the 1915 original of Les Vampires, the French actress Musidora plays a character called Irma Vep (anagrammatic of “vampire”), a member of a criminal gang who robs the Parisian elite. This role launched her notoriety as a femme fatale in the French film industry. To cast a French woman again for the role of Irma Vep would be sacrilegious, as she finds out from René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Leaud), a burnt-out 1970s New Wave director in charge of the remake. But across continents, as Maggie hails from Hong Kong, something clicked for René. Watching a VHS tape of Maggie gracefully fighting in a campy martial arts film, The Heroic Trio, he began to see potential in her and the remake. Call it an attempt to reanimate Musidora’s electrifying spirit, to recapture his dwindling brilliance as a once-famed director, or as an expression of his weird fetishist desire for Maggie — somehow, there she is. Bygones will not be bygones.
Outside René’s superficial desire for her to be there, we’re not sure of his wider vision for the film, nor how she fits within this vision. For Maggie, both an actress and a foreigner, this puts her in a peculiar situation. Within Irma Vep, a clear boundary is drawn between herself and her set members; the outsiders and insiders of French cinema. There’s a language boundary, visible as Maggie tries to get her points across through clumsy translations and hand gestures. Later in the film, Maggie is invited by Zoé (Nathalie Richard), her costume designer, to a dinner party with the rest of the crew. The film community shown here is offhand and chaotic; arguing about René’s filmography and the state of French cinema is second nature to them. But there’s a certain warmth and passion there too. They dance to Bonnie and Clyde. They gossip in kitchens and behind closed doors. It’s the kind of exclusive solidarity you would only witness as an outsider looking in.
Other, more fundamental boundaries are present there – those created by the French New Wave. Otherwise put, by French society. Throughout the film, Maggie is objectified and demeaned in different ways. In the role of Irma Vep, Maggie is asked to squeeze into a skintight latex catsuit bought in a “shop for hookers”. Zoé, perhaps the only person she develops a kinship with, comments on her body looking like a plastic sex toy. When she sits down with a journalist (Antoine Basler) to discuss the release of the film, he asks her to take off her jacket before blasting his opinions on her. He mocks her decision for wanting to star in a René Vidal film, calling all French cinema the equivalent of navel-gazing. On the set, she receives little instruction from René beyond to “just play herself”. This isn’t easy for Maggie; stilted by boundaries that have been set before her.
If Irma Vep were another film, Maggie may have been entirely subservient to being cast as an outsider — yet, it finds ways of breaking these expectations. On the night of the dinner party, there's a dizzying sequence that takes place in her hotel. Under sleepy hypnosis, she tosses and turns in her latex catsuit to the distorted sounds of Tunic (Song for Karen) by Sonic Youth. Leaving her room and tiptoeing through hallways, she stages a heist, sneaking into an anonymous woman’s bathroom to steal a shimmering crystal necklace. At this moment, Maggie reclaims her agency in a role that wasn’t built for her. White-centric, heteronormative narratives of the French New Wave are also subverted in the film. While foreign actors in Paris are nothing new to French cinema (see: Jean Seberg’s role in Breathless), Irma Vep is unique in its depiction of Maggie’s Hong Kong identity and the West-East divide between herself and her colleagues. Her primary love interest, though unreciprocated, is Zoé, a bisexual woman.
There’s a quiet, revolutionary potential in the breaking of these boundaries, especially considering the history of French cinema. At one point in the film, set members gather to watch Classe de Lutte, a documentary about the fight for cultural capital, made as part of the cinema militant movement which followed the May 68 riots in France. Cutting to the film, the following quote flashes on the screen: “Cinema is not magic. It is a science and a technique, a technique born of science and at the service of a will, the will of the workers to free themselves.” This quote acknowledges the potential for art to be used as a means to fight oppression, a way to break societal boundaries. Though cinema appears to be magic, reflected in the nostalgic way René talks about the ephemeral nature of Les Vampires, most cinema is born out of a political reaction.
The French New Wave plays a part in this history. It was subversive in its now-recognisable editing style and frank depiction of sex and violence. This in itself set a new standard for French cinema — but somewhere along the way, it got stuck in retaining this tradition. Around the halfway point of the film, René suffers a nervous breakdown upon realising that there is no substance to his remake. “It's just images, no soul”, he says to Maggie. The veil has been lifted for him; she is simply there as an object of desire. Sadly, this realisation leads to another director, José Murano (Lou Castel), obtaining the rights of the film and replacing Maggie’s role with her French stunt double. Watching the final cut of René’s version of the film, we’re shown an inexplicable sequence with a visual, quicksilver editing style. René appears to have sabotaged the footage; different shapes are drawn over Maggie’s face and fly all over the screen.
Why do we do what’s already been done? According to Irma Vep, a remake is only justifiable if it tells the story through another lens. The downfall of René’s production reflects that there is simply nothing new to tell, as the remake is centred on a voice already expressed—one of male desire. In this way, Irma Vep appears to have foreshadowed an important turning point in the history of French cinema, which is slowly becoming more inclusive of marginalised voices. Recent significant entries in the French canon are Celine Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire and Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables. In both of these, new iterations of history are being told.
Period pieces about forbidden love are nothing new, those depicting that same love between two women are. Stories of class struggle are nothing new, but those set in contemporary Parisian banlieues are. Assayas is aware of this expressive power. Writing to film critic Kent Jones, he states that "If we don’t invent our own values, our own syntax, we will fail at describing our own world". Yet, France seems to be incredibly polarised on how this power should be diffused. An open letter was written to the César awards for its lack of open doors to minorities on the 27th of February 2019. The following night, Adèle Haenel was shown walking out of the 45th edition of the award ceremony in reaction to Roman Polanski’s best director win for J’accuse. These boundaries do still exist — and need to be continuously broken. As a palimpsest of French cinema, Irma Vep is both a celebration of the French New Wave and a push against the archaic boundaries it originally created.