8 October 2004 | jdm101
Maggie Cheung and the embers of the French Avant-Garde
Irma Vep is a film about film-making, an insightful and disturbing film which delivers some beautiful voyeuristic glimpses of vampirism, realist cinema, gritty black-and-white cine-retro and the old men who were once the chic of the French avant-garde film clique.
IMDb says: "Rene Vidal, a director in decline, decides to remake Louis Feuillade's silent serial Les Vampires" but this summary does not mention the real star of the film - Hong Kong kung-fu actress Maggie Cheung, playing herself. She is perfect as the exotic object, the ephemeral other, the object of desire who finds herself at the centre of the film's obsessive and sexually driven visual vortex.
In the privacy of her hotel room, Maggie Cheung zips herself into a full-body black latex catsuit which is going to be her vampire costume on the film set the next day. Maybe she is just getting into character, or maybe she shares something of the director's fascination with nocturnal life... predatory sexuality... visual fixation... the bound female form... anyway, the film really comes to life as she creeps through the hotel, her haunting feline eyes piercing through the spooky-sexy costume... the suspense here is that she is enacting her own vampire fantasy, of her own accord, not under the director's gaze. Maggie Cheung, all alone, on the roof, in the rain, exploring her own version of a male fantasy sequence. This is an unforgettable moment in art-house cinema.
The film really does justice to its themes, with the male characters degenerating from visionaries into voyeurs, and the female characters showing real depth in their willingness to accommodate the male gaze without losing their savvy post-fem powers. If you are a predictable guy like me, you will love the French-Asian grrrl power, which gives the film a pulse.
The theme of visual obsession is presented very well: the director is shouting, the cameras are rolling, and Maggie Cheung, in her catsuit, is ready to suck blood. In these moments she is bound but free, powerless but in control, objectified but liberated. I suppose this makes the film contentious and provocative, but I thought the message was very clear.
Without spoiling the end of the film: the last five minutes of Irma Vep is totally unique. You will never see another film which ends like this one. I can only describe it as a profoundly futile gesture, an act of great passion and impotence, and a brilliant moment in Lettrist art. It is Rene Vidal's last stand, a terrible but beautiful moment caught on celluloid: the work of a madman? a savant? a genius? you can decide, but I am sure you will agree that Irma Vep does a lot more than just scratch the surface of modern film art.
If you like Irma Vep, check out Shadow Of The Vampire as well.