Tomorrow, Zeitgeist releases a new, improved domestic DVD of Olivier Assayas' 1996 Irma Vep, an exhilarating, sometimes acid comedy about movies and moviemaking, in which Hong Kong superstar Maggie Cheung stars as...Maggie Cheung. She's in France to make a "modern" version of Louis Feuillade's seminal silent crime serial Les Vampires, to be helmed by a very fraught director played by Jean-Pierre Leaud. I've already written here about how, to my mind, Vep fits into a line of films that includes Truffaut's La Nuit Americaine (Day For Night) and Fassbinder's Beware of a Holy Whore, and as you'll see below Assayas has some very definite ideas on that perceived continuity himself.
SCR: When it came out, Irma Vep seemed to be at least in part an elegy for a certain aspect of French cinema. And I'm wondering how you see the situation now 12 years later.
ASSAYAS: ...12 years later. It's a very difficult question, actually. Because when I was making the film it was not like I was making a statement and I had some kind of coherent analysis of what French cinema was about. It was very instinctive—more like a Polaroid of the contradictions of French film making at that time, where I was dealing both with the beauty of it and some of the more irritating aspects of it. And also it was a comedy so, you know, I was just trying to turn theory into comedy in many ways.
One of the issues I had was how,
at that time mainstream commercial French film making was beginning to use
whatever they saw in Hong Kong film making as the basis for some kind of French
genre film making. And I kind of
resented it at that time, for silly reasons that had to do with the fact that I
was involved in initially importing Hong Kong film making and I loved Hong Kong
film making on the basis that, behind the action, the fast cutting and so on
and so forth, there was something deeper that had to do with the specifics of
Asian vision of the world. I mean
Asian, Chinese poetry, Chinese painting and so on and so forth. And all of a sudden I just felt that
there were these guys who just only loved the sex and violence thing and kind
of did not understand the complexities of wherever that was coming from. So I was making fun of them, but it was
also polemical in some ways.
One of the issues I had was how, at that time mainstream commercial French film making was beginning to use whatever they saw in Hong Kong film making as the basis for some kind of French genre film making. And I kind of resented it at that time, for silly reasons that had to do with the fact that I was involved in initially importing Hong Kong film making and I loved Hong Kong film making on the basis that, behind the action, the fast cutting and so on and so forth, there was something deeper that had to do with the specifics of Asian vision of the world. I mean Asian, Chinese poetry, Chinese painting and so on and so forth. And all of a sudden I just felt that there were these guys who just only loved the sex and violence thing and kind of did not understand the complexities of wherever that was coming from. So I was making fun of them, but it was also polemical in some ways.
And it's everywhere in French film now. They are using Chinese martial art experts to choreograph their action scenes and so on and so forth. And ultimately they ended up building some kind of French genre film making, which frankly—it's not that I'm fond or not fond of it. I'm not particularly concerned with it. So somehow, you know…I suppose that making a statement against it was a lost cause in the first place.
SCR: The filmmakers you’re speaking of are willfully ignoring the cultural specificity of Hong Kong cinema, gentrifying it…
ASSAYAS: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes, absolutely. Which, you know, it's a process that you know that ultimately is also not specific to French filmmaking. Whatever it was that was happening within Hong Kong genre film making has been absorbed by film making all over the world, including in the States, of course.
SCR: A lot of accounts of Irma Vep see writers describing Rene Vidal, the character played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, as a washed-up “nouvelle vague” director. But nobody ever actually uses the phrase "nouvelle vague" in the film's dialogue, if I recall correctly.
ASSAYAS: No. No. Of course not.
SCR: The casting of Lou Castel as the director who usurps Vidal is interesting. Both Leaud and Castel starred in two very frequently cited films about film making, Truffaut's La Nuit americaine and Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore.
ASSAYAS: When I was writing Irma Vep, Beware of the Holy Whore was a very important reference in many ways. At that time I felt that the one movie about modern film making was Beware of the Holy Whore. Much more than La nuit Americaine which is a movie I love. I just worship Truffaut. But for me, La nuit Americaine is a movie that deals with the fantasy Truffaut had of cinema when he was a child. It's a movie about how he dreamt that movies were made when he was a teenager or something. But it has very little to do with modern film making. Whereas in the modern independent film making where Beware of a Holy Whore is pretty much it, you know; it was the blueprint for [Wenders’] State of Things. It's a movie that was much more present for me at that time than La nuit Americaine which is the film Irma Vep is always compared to. But I think it's very misleading.
Vidal being described as washed-out nouvelle vague film maker; well, you know, he has his own problems but he is ultimately kind of right. He gets made fun of him during the whole film because he's kind of a caricature of depressive French film artist. But then you realize in the end that he was asking the right questions. And not only he was asking the right questions, he was asking like metaphysical questions about cinema. And he does manage in his own way to make some kind of modern version of whatever we figure out he was dealing with. So in that sense I always saw Irma Vep as a movie with a happy ending.
SCR: I saw the Truffaut film as being kind of about movie making as a microcosm for actual life. And when the star arrives, she's kind of absorbed into this community, whereas Maggie in Irma Vep represents a kind of desire. Even though she's greeted with somewhat amused indifference when she first arrives at the office, from then on she becomes the object of desire for the various characters.
ASSAYAS: Yes. Absolutely. And there are two layers to it. For me, Irma Vep is very much a movie about grace, you know, like how grace can enlighten film making miraculously once in a while. And it's something that is both there and not there, visible and invisible. And I think that whatever magic the character of Maggie has, is something that some characters see and some characters don't see. And it's a game that is also played with the audience because the audience is part of it. The audience can see or not see the grace of the character of Maggie. And it's how that the mystery of it kind of circulates, you know, in all the different layers of the film. So that's one part of it. And the other part of it, is that Irma Vep deals with something that La Nuit Americaine doesn't deal with, which is basically what exactly is being filmed. You know, like Meet Pamela in Day for Night is…you don't want to see that film. It looks very dull and it's not the issue. Or you know. like in Abel Ferrara's movie about cinema, is that Snake Eyes--
SCR: Snake Eyes, yeah. I think it was released as Dangerous Game...
ASSAYAS: I kind of like the film. It's also a very interesting film about film making. But the movie they're shooting, Mother of Mirrors, it’s like some kind of nightmare film, you don't want to see that. Snake Eyes itself is a much better film.
But in Irma Vep I just somehow wanted to create a work of art within the work of art that was worth it, that had its own strength, that was kind of worthy of the hopes you have for whatever those characters are working on.
Cheung being interviewed by Assayas on the Vep set.
SCR: And it's interesting having Maggie Cheung play a character named Maggie Cheung, who's obviously not necessarily the person Maggie Cheung. You get her into these sort of moral gray areas and then there are certain times when she's dealing with the attentions of [the character] Zoe or reacting to the attentions of Zoe where you're not sure if she's being disingenuous or not; or all sorts of things, which likely has very little to do with her as an actual person necessarily.
ASSAYAS: It was very important that Maggie was called Maggie in the film, because part of it was not her, but part of it could be her in a way. I mean in Irma Vep she's this kind of fish out of water; she's in a completely different environment, and she doesn't speak the language and people ask her weird questions and she's trying to figure out what's going on. Which is pretty much what was happening with Maggie on the set. Hopefully she had a more interesting or satisfying time on our set than the one depicted in the film! But I mean she herself used that in her work. I think for her it was the first time that she didn't do her homework, as it were; she did not work on the scenes previously to the shoot and working out, “OK, this is how I'm going to do it and I'm going to go in this direction and that direction.” There were many scenes where basically she kind of let herself go. She accepted the notion that she could react to the situations as they happened. So there are specific moments in the film where she's actually being Maggie. Which gets us in a very complex thing of when are you seeing the actor, when are you seeing the character, when are you seeing both, and you know and what's the real person in this whole game?
When I wrote the screenplay I was using another name for the character. But the moment I knew Maggie was doing the film, it was very important that Maggie could be Maggie and I could use clips of Maggie's films within the film and so on and so forth.
SCR: It occurs to me that you also deal with her persona to a certain extent in Clean, even though she's playing a character completely not herself. There seems a similar tack to which you deal with Asia Argento's persona in the work in Boarding Gate.
ASSAYAS: In both films, I mean both Clean and Boarding Gate, I suppose I'm playing with the duality. I'm playing with the idea we have of a specific actress via her persona and the person she actually is. In both films I start with some kind of fantasy we can have of a movie star. Take the kind of notion we have, for instance, of Asia. And I start with that and kind of strip her until I kind of get to the core of the person at the end. Somehow at the end of Boarding Gate, it's not about the idea we have of Asia Argento, but basically the raw human being behind the mask. And somehow it's more or less the same story in Clean.
SCR: In Boarding Gate, the very first confrontation between Asia's character and Michael Madsen's character—that dialogue, the back and forth between them is in some respects almost a critique of the relationship between an actor and a director.
ASSAYAS: In some ways. But it's also about the ambiguities between love, desire and how, I don't know, just somehow individuals get lost in the complexities of their own desires and the contradictions of their own desires.
Michael Madsen and Asia Argento, Boarding Gate, Assayas, 2007
SCR: I’m told you’re in the middle of scouting locations, and you were recently in Lebanon.
ASSAYAS: Yes, I was in Lebanon. I was in Syria, I was in Sudan and Yemen, which is all places where we might shoot. Damascus is the least likely but the others are places where we might shoot a film.
SCR: Which project is this?
ASSAYAS: It's complex. It's based on the story of Carlos, Carlos the Jackal, the terrorist. And it's 20 years of his life, between 1974 and '94. It starts with his first operation in London and it ends when he's arrested by the French police in Khartoum in Sudan. It's going to be like three feature length films for French pay TV. And there will be I suppose a shorter version that will be the international movie version of it. Although at this point it's not exactly clear what shape or form we'll have the film version. It might turn into 2 films.
SCR: We’ve heard also of a continuation of your characters from Summer Hours, called Les Temps de Venir?
ASSAYAS: No, that's--
SCR: That's a myth?
ASSAYAS: Yeah, totally.
SCR: I figured as much.
ASSAYAS: That's not in the plan.
SCR: Sounded kind of improbable. What brought you to the Carlos project?
ASSAYAS: Well it was this producer who came to me saying, “Are you interested in doing the story of Carlos?” And he had these four pages that were dreadful. I looked into it and I thought, well, this is not very exciting. But all of a sudden, it made me think about Carlos, and I asked this producer if he had a biography of the man. So I read it and I thought there was something kind of fascinating in terms of that period, in terms of some kind of modern adventure. And I was kind of amazed that no one really dealt with it because it's pretty extraordinary. And the subject matter is kind of addictive. So I started writing and writing and writing and it got just like absurdly long. So we had to find ways of just shaping it so that it could be made. As it turns out I’m doing it with an incredible level of freedom. I had no pressure on the locations, cast, narration, whatever. So it's a very exciting film to make, I must say.
SCR: Seems that people are beginning to look back at that era and its various manifestations of terrorism a bit more these days. Barbet Schroder did a documentary on Jacques Verges, who was Carlos’s lawyer, among other things, and there's a recent German feature film about Baader-Meinhof…
ASSAYAS: I suppose that enough time has passed and all of a sudden people can just look back on that time without it being so problematic or dangerous to treat in a film. I'm kind of amazed I have the kind of budget I have to make the story of Carlos in France. I thought that it would be completely taboo, that it would be just too radical for something like French TV. And all of a sudden, I don't know, there's like a crack in the system.
I've been learning a lot in preparing the film. The research I did, it's huge. It got me to areas I never really explored before.
SCR: Will you be shooting on Super 16, 35 or digital?
ASSAYAS: We'll be shooting mostly super 16 but I think we will mix the textures. Some of it will be in 35, most of it in super 16. We might do some stuff also on DV, I mean depending on the location. I prefer film. With this picture, it's so long and so complex and because I'm using also period footage, so you know I have to mix everything, so it's much easier to shoot it super 16 and then go to some digital post production to mix all the elements. But otherwise, you know, I think that 35 is just my medium. I need film. I prefer film. I'm not a digital person.
SCR: Well, to get back to Irma Vep, I don't know if you'd necessarily categorize things that way, but looking back on your work since then, where do you think it fits and how do you look at it? Obviously it was something that had a big impact on your personal life as well as your professional life.
ASSAYAS: Yes, well yes, it definitely had. It definitely had.
I suppose that the support the film had in the States and the way it was kind of successful in its own way in the States, in England, in Australia, compared to France, where people were very suspicious of the film when it was first released. That was significant. The film did not do well in France. But gradually the film got this kind of cult status, including in France, where now all of a sudden everybody seems to have forgotten that it was not that well received.
And to me it's deeply connected to Cold Water, which is the film I did right before that. And it's two movies I shot in super 16, 4 weeks, no money. And you know it just gave me some kind of extraordinary freedom, because I just stayed with the notion that I don't need money to make films. And I can be kind of radical in my choices, because I know that worse comes to worse, I still would be able to make that film in that format, which gives you a lot of confidence obviously. And beyond that, Irma Vep just gave me some confidence that you can get away with a lot in terms of film making. When I wrote the film I thought, oh my God, I will never get away with this, it’s too weird. And then, you know, people did relate to it. So it was kind of unexpected.