As cinema about cinema, Irma Vep is a self-aware work populated with characters that ironically lack awareness, even as they play themselves.
“It’s very important to be simple. Just be yourself,” real-life director Jean-Pierre Leaud, as fictional director Rene Vidal, tells real-life actress Maggie Cheung, as scripted actress Maggie Cheung.
Maggie tugs on her latex bondage suit, her costume for the remake of the 1915 film, Les Vampires, which is the film within the film. “It’s kind of hard in this,” she responds.
The subtext is larger than Maggie’s costume—it’s hard to be a Hong Kong action hero, playing yourself in a made-for-TV French art film—and more philosophically, it’s hard to be true to yourself, no matter who you are.
The dialogue is very much dialogue, very much itself, while at the same time, more than itself. This is also true of the film (Les Vampires, the television remake) within a film (Irma Vep), framed within another symbolically prototypical film (Les Vampires the original), and of the roving, attention-seeking cinematography which allows the camera to both be and play itself. The cinematography is a presence, impossible for viewers to ignore.
Alternating between handheld and steadicam, the phrasing of the shots alternates between extraordinarily long—but simultaneously smooth and restless—takes, with characters in motion intersecting and passing the metaphorical spotlight, much as relay runners would pass a baton, or either quick-quick and flash-cut jumpy. The interspersion of these two disparate styles illustrates the underlying tension of the story, which is generated from the instability of the production crew and overall process of Les Vampires the remake, the personal vulnerability of the characters—in both or all three of the layered films—the fragile nature of communication, and the tragi-drama of cinema in general and of French cinema in particular.
The opening shot pans a frenzied production office. The pan moves intuitively right, as if we are “reading” the events on screen. If the entire movie were a text, this would be a quick skim of a book jacket, to situate the reader in time and place.
A producer, seen through an office window, takes an important phone call. The camera moves from the producer to a gun that a P.A. holds at waist-height. We follow the gun to the desk of another assistant and, as she continues her phone conversation, she picks up the gun, appreciatively shakes it around, and then we move to another angle on the window, where the producer is auditioning an actor until the prop manager interrupts to say, “I have three guns.”
“First door on the right,” the producer replies, and, as if taking the direction itself, the camera moves right again, to a door that opens, announcing the “star entrance” of Maggie Cheung—she steps into the office and into the film. All of this is accomplished in a single take that is as busy and visually “noisy” as the office itself.
Immersed in the scene, Gautier’s cinema-verite style is not impartial or distanced from the action. It’s an actor, a subject, a character in the film, in constant motion even when the object it acts upon (the other characters) are perfectly still.
Yet the camera is also outside of the scene. The camera is a voyeur—a presence removed from the action, a presence the characters are indifferent towards—yet a presence involved in an uncomfortably intimate way. Through this involvement, the camera is betraying its “pure nature” as “technological device.” This cinematographic paradox serves as a critique within a critique (within a work, within an industry).
Ideologically, the film is a web of allusions, flush with references to Hong Kong cinema, silent cinema, French cinema and American cinema—as manifested in movie clips, a Catwoman costume, and direct and nuanced dialogic nods. The movie is a series of vignettes, the narratives burrowing and sprawling into scenes where characters deal with personal emotions and experiences while centrifugally connected by the force of the cinematic production process. The center of this storm is Rene’s artistic vision, which focuses on his concept of Maggie’s “grace.”
Maggie becomes a repository and reflection for the other characters’ desperation, dissatisfaction, needs and egos. She is a sounding board—nothing but an image or projection—this, underscored by the camera’s deliberate capture of her likeness in mirrors or on monitors. To complicate matters, when she steals the jewels, Maggie plays herself playing a character (Irma Vep), playing herself playing a character.
Again the dialogue works on a second tier, commenting indirectly on Maggie’s situation—“Am I making this relationship up?” the hotel guest, Maggie’s victim, complains over the phone to her absent lover, as Maggie scoops necklaces off the guest’s vanity.
These ideas are visually mimicked in the layered cinematography throughout the film as we witness scenes through windows, mirrors, lenses and doorways. There is a Platonic cave-and-shadow concept behind this cinematography. It serves to encourage skepticism of the “reality” we are witnessing, especially when the action reflected in a mirror is occurring within the confines of the Les Vampires remake. These photographic techniques also reinforce other themes, such as an overall celebration of looking and the common postmodernist rhetoric of disconnection, as evidenced by the verbal (language barriers) and nonverbal miscommunication that plagues these characters.
Voyeurism is inherent in cinema and is reiterated by the embedded clips from other films. Rene (and us, as viewers) are blatant voyeurs in the scene where Rene displays Maggie to herself via videocassette. Ironically the “Maggie” that he’s touts is actually a stunt double of the real Maggie, so that through this early scene we understand that Maggie will become a symbolic platform through which Rene, and all the characters, will interpret their own fantasies and madness. This is further accentuated by the latex suit, blue filter and how Rene “creates” Maggie through the deconstruction of film stock. Although the overtly “fetishized” (at least in the sexual sense of the term) scenes are not always the ones we see played out through windows and mirrors, these angles set up a general voyeuristic mind-frame that enhances the entire “documentary style” of the film. We feel we are seeing in an illicit, and therefore more exciting, manner.
This notion is the premise of the film. What we are getting is a pseudo-backstage glimpse of the filmmaking process and the characters behind that process—which is perhaps more dishonest than no glimpse at all.
Irma Vep is based around characters and ideas that are and aren’t what they seem to be. The shaky camera seems almost confessional, suspending our belief in the “reality” of this unreality.
The camera also expertly captures the emotional experience of the characters. There are numerous instances when the camera closes in claustrophobically, as certain characters or conversations become heated and intense. An example of this “emotive” filming is the scene where Maite conveys Zoe’s (played by Nathalie Richards) sexual interest in Maggie. We have a strong sense of Maggie as “other.” She doesn’t speak the language, she’s an outsider among this cast and crew that works together often, she’s an outsider in French culture, which is stereotypically much less reserved than that of her home in Hong Kong.
Moments earlier, around the dinner table, the camera has been “breathlessly” following the busyness of a large group of friends, drinking, eating, smoking and joking. The consistent motion of the camera depicts the scene as even more chaotic than it actually is. Maggie is lost, unable to follow conversations, feeling dizzy from wine. This, coupled with the fact that we already know of Zoe’s attraction to Maggie, infuses the scene with anxiety. With Maite now, away from the table, the camera is finally still, absorbing the full awkwardness of Maggie’s reaction to the news about Zoe.
The camera continues to hold on Maggie when she returns to the table. The shot is more traditionally chaotic, the energy due to Jessica and Laure dancing in the background rather than to any movement of the camera. They are partial, incomplete bodies cluttering the frame, echoing the sound-clutter of loud music, but the motionless camera (probably one of the few tripod shots of this film) offers yet another, even more voyeuristic and intimate reflection of Maggie than the busy camera has provided all along. It gives us a picture of the inner workings of her mind as she retreats further into herself to process this news. Maggie appears composed, but she eats the slightest bit more compulsively, keeping her mouth full so she doesn’t have to speak.
In what is nearly the final scene of the movie, we have a bookend of the first scene. There is a new director, and we watch through windows as the cast and crew wait around to start shooting all over again, with a new star. Essentially, Irma Vep is starting from scratch. But this time the chaos is not distilled with an air of anticipation and playfulness. To account for this resignation and drudgery, the camera work is similar to that of the earlier production-office scene, except that the pacing is a beat slower.
The film ends with the culmination of the experience as, alongside the characters, we screen the remake of Les Vampires—or at least, the part of the remake that, during the course of the movie, been compiled thus far.