Criterion restores an enigmatic classic from one of France’s most beloved modern auteurs
Olivier Assayas is a director whose gaze can be described as a split diopter through cinematic history. Informed by the chaotic cultural revolution of May ’68 and the French New Wave as a youth, coupled with unrivaled exposure to international cinema as a critic for Cahiers Du Cinema through the turbulent 1980s, Assayas’ filmography sees his characters as both vehicles and passengers through cinematic and social history — reckoning with an ever-changing world alongside their spellbound audiences. Irma Vep, his first collaboration with Chinese cinema icon and future partner Maggie Cheung, is a metatextual clash between two raging artistic movements — the revered French nouvelle vague and modern Hong Kong New-Wave cinema — set against the immortal battle between art and commerce. The result is a dizzying blur of cinema and reality, erasing the lines between medium, inspiration, and artistic appreciation.
Maggie Cheung (Maggie Cheung) is fresh off an over-schedule Hong Kong action film when she arrives at a chaotic production office in Paris. Set to take over a legendary role by French silent icon Musidora in a remake of Louis Feuillade’s silent serial Les Vampires, Maggie turns the heads of many of the French crew. None more so than the film’s director, Rene Vidal (The 400 Blows’ Jean-Pierre Leaud)–a once-heralded director approaching the graveyard of late-career mediocrity…as well as Zoe (Nathalie Richard), the film’s costume designer who’s increasingly critical about the pointlessness of the film’s whole endeavor. “Why do what’s been done before,” she pointedly asks throughout. As such, English-speaking Maggie struggles to lose herself in a role overshadowed by a performance beloved by the people who are critical of someone “foreign” stepping into its place. Meanwhile, Vidal’s demands of his crew grow increasingly bizarre as he strives for an artistic perfection that seems tantalizingly out of reach — one already achieved nearly a century ago.
As tensions grow on a film set that feels increasingly frivolous and off the rails, Assayas’ film endlessly doubles-back on its gaze through history. There’s seemingly little differentiation between Maggie Cheung the icon, actor, and character — performing off of a mostly-improvised script yet bound by a rich, detailed scenario by Assayas that plays into her real-life status as a globally-recognizable screen heroine yet ironically little-known by the French public at the time. She clashes and commiserates with a fellow soft-spoken titan of cinema history in his own culture — Leaud, having grown from his Truffaut days and already a collaborator with Godard, Varda, Eustache, and others, is just as much under the same artistic burden as Cheung. However, his Vidal channels French artistic and cultural anxieties through the opposite side of the camera — struggling to determine its own relevancy as the world evolves beyond it, seeing his once-revolutionary contributions as now boring and trite.
Between Cheung and Leaud on-screen and Assayas’ pointed visual commentary throughout, one can’t help but picture Irma Vep as a cinematic version of animated character Gromit atop a runaway train, frantically placing train tracks ahead of him to prevent an inevitable crash. All involved are building off of what’s come before to fuel an anxious journey into the unknown — it’s all they can do in the face of such modern uncertainty. While such reflexive reconstruction goes derided by some characters, Assayas recognizes there’s important value in doing so: to lose sight of the past is to fail to build upon it. In a scene with an obnoxious French interviewer critical of his own country’s cinema in favor of new auteurs like John Woo, Assayas recognizes how the character fails to recognize how Woo himself wasn’t created in a vacuum — he was also informed by his own country’s history and culture, as well as of those abroad, even in France. Irma Vep, in contrast, embraces its position in an endless tapestry of history, one constantly re-weaving itself into new contexts and patterns in a search for new meanings and insight. It epitomizes its director’s infectious curiosity and passion for film — one that spreads like wildfire among his captive audience.
Criterion presents Irma Vep in a 1080p HD transfer in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio, sourced new 2K restoration of the original 16mm and 35mm camera negative. The restoration was approved by Olivier Assayas and conducted by Eclair on behalf of the CNC. The 35mm original magnetic audio tracks were also restored in a 5.1-Channel DTS-HD Surround track for this release. English SDH tracks and English subtitles for foreign-language segments are present for the feature.
Wildly blending fly-on-the-wall, harsh-contrast Super-16 color cinematography with stark black-and-white 35mm film, Irma Vep is a frenzied descent into multiple visual mediums that remains relentlessly captivating throughout. Colors are vibrant whether in full-spectrum or black-and-white, and any artifacting remains natural to the type of medium presented onscreen. Assayas’ soundscape is equally layered, weaving diegetic noises and dialogue with a chaotically eclectic soundtrack featuring Sonic Youth and Serge Gainsbourg.
- Olivier Assayas: In this newly recorded 2021 Zoom interview, Assayas contextualizes Irma Vep alongside his earlier films, his French and Hong Kong New Wave influences, the origins of Irma Vep in a project collaboration with Claire Denis and Atom Egoyan, his personal and professional relationship with Maggie Cheung, and the metatextual elements of the film as it relates to stardom, inspiration, world cinema, and filmmaking itself.
- Olivier Assayas and Charles Tesson: In this 33-minute 2003 archival interview, Assayas and French critic Tesson discuss their 1984 visit to Hong Kong to dive into its current cinema culture for Cahiers du Cinema, a brief history of Chinese cinema informed by their passion towards filmmakers and actors, Assayas’ inspirations in new Taiwanese cinema, their attempts as critics to stoke interest in Hong Kong/Chinese cinema in their native France, and how then semi-retired Maggie Cheung came to be cast in Irma Vep.
- Maggie Cheung and Nathalie Richard: This 17-minute 2003 archival interview with Irma Vep’s lead actresses details how both actresses initially approached the freedom associated with their loosely-defined yet dramatically rich roles, their first experiences with Louis Feuillade films, their working relationship with Jean-Pierre Leaud, and the amount of agency Cheung had during the contested and comedic interview scene between her “character” and a bullish French film critic.
- On the Set of Irma Vep: 30 minutes of footage captured during the shooting of some of Irma Vep’s most recognized scenes, from Cheung’s rooftop interview, to the party Nathalie brings Maggie to, and others.
- Les Vampires — Hypnotic Eyes: The sixth installment of Louis Feuillade’s 10-episode Les Vampires serial from 1915, featuring Musidora’s original portrayal of Irma Vep — the future inspiration for Olivier Assayas’ film.
- Musidora, The Tenth Muse: A 2013 documentary about the actress, performer, and filmmaker who originated the role of Irma Vep in Les Vampires, following film critics and historians in addition to family and friends to create a unified portrait of the artist.
- Cinema in the Present Tense: A 2020 40-minute address by Assayas on behalf of Belgian publisher Sabzian. Here, Assayas lays out the current crisis-laden status and structure of modern film culture, as laid out by its nearly quarter-century relationship with other artistic movements and sociopolitical movements at large.
- Man-Yuk — A Portrait of Maggie Cheung: A 5-minute silent short film by Assayas commissioned by the Cartier Foundation of Contemporary Art. Candid shots of Cheung as she implements beauty regimens and goes out into local night-life, amidst superimposed fire and water.
- Black and White Rushes: 4 minutes of raw 35mm footage from Irma Vep’s film-within-a-film.
Plus, a booklet featuring an essay by Metrograph head film programmer Aliza Ma analyzing Irma Vep’s interrogation of film history and culture in the context of a repeated collision and reckoning between modern/classic cinema throughout Assayas’ filmography.
Irma Vep is now available on Blu-ray and DVD courtesy of The Criterion Collection.