Filmmaking, at its best, has always sought to bear witness to, and create new perspectives on, our lived realities. But no one has mined the eccentric possibilities of the cinematic medium to address the vertiginous social and cultural changes borne out by our last quarter century to such stunning effect as Olivier Assayas. While it crisscrosses genres and shifts in scale and scope, his diverse body of work traces the contours of the connected world’s collective identity crisis. His films often portray different spheres of media undergoing moments of unprecedented flux, exploring the push and pull between shifting market forces and artistic virtues in the world of publishing in Late August, Early September (1998) and later in Non-Fiction (2018); the internet’s insidious capacity to commodify experiences, and, at its extreme, human lives in demonlover (2002); the state of rock music as an art medium in the dawn of the early aughts, just before the takeover of landfill indie, in Clean (2004); and pop culture and social media’s effects on the increasingly transient values of the personal and the collective, the material and the imaginary, and high and low art in Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) and Personal Shopper (2016). For the director, these realms become microcosms in which to contemplate the surfeit of emotional and intellectual questions that accumulate in our ever-changing environments.
Assayas’s particular postmodern language emerges from a profoundly humanist desire to reproduce the realms of media that were made to absorb society’s instabilities and to cast them back into the world in a new, revealing light—because, in his words, in “any given period, individuals are concerned with how their world is changing.” This distinctive approach became fully developed with his sixth feature, Irma Vep (1996), his first film to turn these methods of reflection directly onto his own medium. Even in retrospect, it’s difficult to parse all the transformations the film industry began to undergo in the nineties within the larger currents of globalization and digitization that have thoroughly altered the way moving images represent our realities: new digital formats began to take over the roles of time-tested celluloid in filmmaking and distribution (the first digital-video feature film was made in 1996; a year later, Netflix would be established); the evolution of film financing in Europe and the U.S. saw an unprecedented rise in international coproductions; the disintegration of genre barriers into granular sub- and microgenres set off a thorough reorientation of existing aesthetic and critical frameworks. In a moment of whiplash, Irma Vep was both a snapshot of and a response to cinema’s daunting new permutations. Incidentally, this strange, alluring object of a film—shaped on the one hand by explorations of established traditions of French cinema, and on the other by the recent influx of “imported” ideas and cultural figures into the Western film industry—became Assayas’s biggest hit to date, receiving critical recognition in addition to worldwide box-office success.
Irma Vep begins with the arrival from Hong Kong of Maggie Cheung—playing a barely adapted version of herself—to the chaotic offices of a production company in Paris. There, preparations are underway to shoot the newest feature by a dissipated, aging auteur named René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud), who has made the controversial decision to cast Maggie as the lead in his remake of Louis Feuillade’s 1915–16 silent serial Les vampires, a role originally played by the quintessentially Parisian Musidora. Maggie is soon taken to be suited up by the production’s audacious costume designer, Zoé (Nathalie Richard)—per Vidal’s exacting instructions—in a shiny black catsuit inspired by Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman in Batman Returns, before being thrown onto an over-budget, behind-schedule set that becomes ever more frenzied as filming progresses.
“Assayas’s porous method of filmmaking catches moments of levity, liminality, and humanity.”
Assayas has a remarkable way of bringing abstract ideas and philosophical challenges down to a tangible, tactile level. His porous method of filmmaking catches moments of levity, liminality, and humanity to create something closer to the scale of intimate individual experience than most directors are able to. It’s a style that was hatched during the making of the feature immediately preceding Irma Vep, Cold Water (1994), a semi-autobiographical snapshot of suburban teenagehood in the early seventies that feels less like a frozen portrait from the past than a living memory. With Cold Water and Irma Vep, Assayas freed himself of the literal and figurative baggage of dominant industry standards that he had previously largely complied with as a screenwriter and director. Each was shot in just twenty days, using Super 16 mm handheld cameras (Irma Vep also employs 35 mm black and white). With the camera, crew, and actors coming together in harmonious choreography, Assayas was able to bring Cold Water to the crescendo of its unforgettable all-night, bonfire-lit party scene, a paean to the creative and destructive energies of youth. The lively, teeming atmosphere of his real film set permeates the fictional one portrayed in Irma Vep—in the movie, the camera is as restless as the characters who seem to move freely around it—simultaneously drawing attention to and breaking down the barriers between the process of filmmaking and the subject being filmed, the real and the artificial.
As with Cold Water, the organic, intuitive process of making Irma Vep began at the script level: drawing on his own time working as a film critic, screenwriter, and filmmaker, Assayas wrote the screenplay with Cheung in mind sometime after meeting her at a film festival. And it is the actor’s subtle, layered performance that is at the core of the film. When Maggie first shows up at the office, there is an immediate cognitive dissonance between how she is perceived by the production crew and how she will inevitably be recognized by audiences. Cheung was in her early thirties at the time of the filming of Irma Vep and already more than a decade into a wide-ranging acting career that had progressed from the cut-and-dried Hong Kong romantic comedies of the eighties to the auteurist action movies and self-reflexive art-house films that catapulted Hong Kong cinema to the global stage in the nineties, with a peerless résumé including collaborations with Johnnie To, Wong Kar Wai, Stanley Kwan, and Tsui Hark. All this would have been known to Assayas, who specialized in Asian cinema as a writer for Cahiers du cinéma long before he and Cheung met (in 1984, for Cahiers, he wrote what is widely considered to be the first-ever long-form consideration of Hong Kong cinema in a Western publication). Although Irma Vep was the first film Cheung made outside the Hong Kong industry, she was already one of cinema’s most recognizable faces around the world.
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