Criterion Corner: Irma Vep (#1074)

In 2021, we did a podcast episode titled “Second Chances” (which we’re hoping to turn into something of an annual thing). In it, we discussed films that, for one reason or another, didn’t work for us but that we’d been wanting to revisit because we thought it might’ve been a case of “It’s not you, it’s me”: that we watched these films with the wrong kind of expectation, or that we lacked the right lens through which to watch it.

Sometimes, though, there can be films (or books, plays, poems, TV series, albums, games etc. etc.) that simply work on a wavelength that we’re not receptive to. This doesn’t mean that they’re bad or that we’re wrong or stupid for not liking them. I’ve long believed that most art that is interesting won’t be for everyone. Ideally I can still get something out of culture that isn’t for me, but generally this is a matter more of appreciation than of enjoyment. Often these are works that I prefer to discuss or read or watch a good video essay about rather than to watch.

But these works still tend to leave me with lingering doubts, especially the ones that have elements or aspects that I genuinely do enjoy: a scene, a performance, or perhaps a shot that sticks in my mind. And the same can be true for certain directors: I don’t generally like their work, but there’s something about it that makes it difficult for me to just conclude that they’re not for me.

More often than not, it’s one of two things that prompts me to give a second chance with respect to films and directors: either it’s that they’re shown at a cinema, and I hope that the shared experience of sitting in a comfortable seat in the dark will make the difference – or Criterion issues a release that makes me think the Criterion Effect will make everything alright. Truth be told, this has happened… I hesitate to say ‘never’, but if it’s happened, it’s so rare that I don’t even remember. Sure, a good Criterion release is a great way to revisit a film, to deepen one’s appreciation, but it’s unlikely to readjust a film’s wavelength, or mine, to such an extent that I come away liking it where before I didn’t. If anything, the quality of the release and the supplements included on the disk may make it easier for me to appreciate a work, but as I’ve noted before, there’s a difference between appreciation and enjoyment.

So, Irma Vep. I’ve watched a number of films by Olivier Assayas: his Carlos, which I enjoyed at the time but it didn’t stay with, and then Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper. There are undoubtedly things about the two latter that I enjoyed and that intrigued me – but on the whole, both films left me rather cold, and some aspects downright annoyed me. He works with talented actors and gets interesting performances out of them, but the writing tends to do very little for me. I’ve watched Clouds of Sils Maria twice, and both times I’ve wondered what it is I’m missing, because there’s little there for me to latch on to, whether emotionally, intellectually or otherwise.

Since I’m not yet willing to give up on Assayas, I asked around, and various people told me the same thing: Irma Vep (1996) is a good gateway drug to get into the director’s work. Having watched it, I can see where they’re coming from: it’s the first of Assayas’ films where I respond to the charm and the sense of humour, albeit still only in fits and starts. I recognise elements of the other films, especially the preoccupation with genre cinema that is also there in Sils Maria (albeit in the later film it’s done in a way that I frankly find both patronising and hypocritical). He definitely knows how to put performers at the centre of his films that have presence, in this case Maggie Cheung as a fictionalised version of herself. Having previously only known Cheung from her iconic performance in In the Mood for Love and being ignorant of her career in Asian action cinema, I immediately warmed to the affable but befuddled movie version of her as a fish out of water engaged in a troubled French shoot headed by the neurotic director René Vidal (played by Truffaut, Godard and Kaurismäki alumnus Jean-Pierre Léaud). While Maggie tries to make the best of her part, she is only vaguely aware of the ongoing multiple crises behind the camera.

There is a nouvelle vague playfulness to Irma Vep that I didn’t really get from Sils Maria or Personal Shopper and that seems to have been doubled in the trailer for the HBO miniseries reimagining of Irma Vep, again created by Assayas and this time starring Alicia Vikander in the role originated by Cheung. Irma Vep acknowledges the goofiness of a lot of genre cinema, but it does seem to have a genuine affection for the formal play it allows for, which is very different from the more two-faced attitude towards it in Sils Maria. The film is also easier to watch for its individual scenes, in which Cheung attends a party or gets a costume fitting at a sex shop or explores her own Irma Vep side, putting on her fetish-gear costume and trying her hand at cat burglary just to get into the spirit of things. There is also the gloriously surreal, pop-art final sequence that revels in the visual jazz of the rushes shot of Cheung as Irma Vep, the burglar-spy heroine of Vidal’s silent-movie remake. Assayas also has fun with the multilingual setting and uses the languages to amplify Cheung’s sense that she’s out of place.

At the same time, there is still this sense that I’m missing something: something about the French cinema of the time, perhaps, or the exact intertextual thrust of Assayas’ riff on various traditions of cinematic storytelling. I get the impression that José Mirano (Lou Castel), the director called in to replace Vidal after a nervous breakdown who plots to replace Cheung with an ultra-Parisian actress, is making fun of… something. Certain reactionary tendencies in French cinema? Some specific director? Even if it’s lessened compared to the other films I’ve seen by Assayas, I still came away from the film feeling that in some fundamental way I’m not connecting.

Criterion has released more films by Assayas. I’ve got Carlos and can always revisit that one. Same with Clouds of Sils Maria. I could also get Personal Shopper or Cold Water or Summer Hours. I’m not yet ready to give up completely on Assayas, to acknowledge that it’ll never really work out between him and me. I got more out of Irma Vep than out of the other films I’ve seen. But I’m thinking that at least as far as trying to get into Assayas by means of Criterion is too expensive a hobby. Instead, I will probably check out the HBO version of Irma Vep – and who knows? Perhaps that’s when the penny will finally drop and I’ll discover what it is I’ve been missing until now. We’ll see.

One thought on “Criterion Corner: Irma Vep (#1074)

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