Tuesday, March 05, 2013

Vamp or Not? Irma Vep

Irma Vep was a 1996 French film directed by Olivier Assayas and, rather than being an actual remake of the 1915 serial Les Vampires, it observed the fictional remaking of the serial.

The serial itself received, quite rightly, an Honourable Mention. I hadn’t really thought to look at the film until it was mentioned, and explored, in Ken Gelder’s book New Vampire Cinema. We have to, therefore, look to Gelder’s reasoning for including the film in his study.

He looks at it in the chapter “Citational Vampires” and of Irma Vep he says it “is not quite a vampire film; we might say that it puts itself into proximity with vampire films, that it cites them, summons them and draws them in (and keeps them at bay). It does this by triggering off a sequence of other encounters between the local and the remote, all in the framework of thinking about the contemporary nature of cinema itself: both in terms of its ‘local levels of language and community and affective mobilization’, and in terms of transnational circulation and distribution.

Maggie Cheung as herself
The film starts in a production office and, into the chaos, is brought lead actress Maggie Cheung (the Seventh Curse). Maggie has been chosen to play Irma Vep by director René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and has flown in from Hong Kong. She is three days late due to the last film she worked on over-running. She arrives in Paris without any French language (the communication with her is in English) and we wonder at why she was cast as Irma Vep.

Musidora as the original Irma Vep
In the original serial Irma Vep (an anagram of vampire) was played by Musidora. Vidal tells Cheung that, “No French actress can be Irma Vep after Musidora. It’s impossible. It’s blasphemy.” However Musidora was a vamp – by the dictionary definition – indeed she is classed as the first vamp of European cinema. Vidal sees that Cheung is “magic like her”, in other words she too is a vamp, though perhaps a modern variation due to her Eastern origin.

Nathalie Richard as Zoé 
There is, within the film, a discourse about French cinema. Costumer Zoé (Nathalie Richard) does not understand why the serial is to be remade, is excited when watching French political cinema and puzzled at the influence of American cinema on French cinema, whilst an interviewer dismisses French cinema as old and outdated. In many respects then, Cheung fills a place that Dracula filled in the eponymous novel - a foreign influence entering and upsetting the status quo, somehow both ancient and modern.

Cheung in make-up
With this in mind the replacement director, José Mirano (Lou Castel), occupies an almost Van Helsing role. He sees Irma Vep as a representation of the (sleazy underbelly) of Paris and as such takes on the job of directing the remake (after Vidal has a breakdown, mirroring Jonathon Harker by inviting the foreign essence into his homeland and then breaking down) on the condition that Vep is recast and Cheung sent home. However, whilst there are points of symmetry they are deeply buried, possibly coincidental and not accessible with a casual watch. Incidentally Mirano’s name is taken from a criminal in the original serial who kidnaps and hypnotises Irma Vep.

taking direction
Before this happens (Cheung’s removal from the film) we see her become obsessed with her costume. This is a vital part of the film – indeed the DVD box calls the film “A Latex Comedy”. Rather than the silks worn by Musidora, Cheung’s Vep wears a tight-fitting latex outfit. This is actually chosen because of the look sported by catwoman in Batman Returns (1992) – so Vep’s costume is based on one in a Hollywood sequel. Of course catwoman is a vamp (and a thief), as was both Musidora and Maggie Cheung in the role of Irma Vep.

stalking through the hotel
She enjoys the costume so much that she asks to buy it after the shoot (it is suggested to the bisexual Zoé that she should take the request as an invitation to make a pass at Cheung, who is oblivious to Zoé’s attraction it seems). Later Cheung puts the costume on and stealthily sneaks through her hotel, actually entering the room of another (naked) guest and stealing jewellery. It is almost as though Cheung and her character are one, for that moment, and this leaves her exhausted - ready to sleep the day away. The costume worn by her body double, Laure (Nathalie Boutefeu), is ripped and Zoé has to fix it (revamping the costume as Mirano revamps the role by replacing Cheung with Laure).

Cheung in the rain
Interestingly the costume foreshadows that worn by Kate Beckinsale in the 2003 Underworld and the scene with Cheung in the rain is reminiscent of the character Selene in the rain in Underworld. The iconic image of Selene has been cited by several lower budget vampire films by being revamped for their DVD box images. In some respects this ties Selene into a chain of vamps going via Cheung back to Musidora as Irma Vep.

artistic license 
However, all this does not answer the question, “Vamp or Not?” I can see why Gelder looked at the film but his argument follows broad themes that perhaps can be looked at within vampire films and that are shared within the film Irma Vep. It is possible to look at some points of contact, as I did above, but that is not how we gauge a “Vamp or Not?” There is nothing supernatural or preternatural in the film, nor is there a character who thinks they are a vampire (Cheung’s actions are not someone thinking they are a vampire, except perhaps in the broad brush of the criminal gang from the serial in her method acting moment). All in all, Not Vamp.

The imdb page is here.


Superheroinegirl said...

In terms of it's relation to Vampire fiction, isn't it also similar to "Shadow of the Vampire" drawing on a Silent Classic to tell an eccentric director story?

Taliesin_ttlg said...

This is true, though Shadow told a fictional tale of the filming of an actual movie but the basic idea is there. Good spot.