Fans of the mid-90’s cinematic rebellion will rejoice knowing Oliver Assayas’ celebrated film Irma Vep is now on Blu-ray. When Hong Kong star Maggie Cheung, playing herself, is hired to star in a remake of the classic Les Vampires the auteur director and his crew become embroiled in dramas that mirror the crisis in 90’s French film culture. The Criterion Collection brings the film to HD in a killer two disc release packed with special features and a brand new 2k digital restoration. Highly Recommended.
“It’s just images about images. It’s worthless.”
René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is a washed-up director whose best films are behind him. Now a relic of the French New Wave he is hoping to rekindle his career with financing from a TV studio to remake the classic silent film series Les Vampires. After watching The Heroic Trio he casts Maggie Cheung in the role of Irma Vep. Maggie arrives in Paris and walks into the chaos of Rene’s pre-production offices. Nobody picks her up from the airport and not a single person recognizes her as she casually strolls into the fray. A meeting with Rene reveals his desire for Maggie is both personal and professional. His motivations become clearer when she is shown a photo of Michele Pfeiffer as Catwoman in Batman Returns as the costume reference photo.
Irma Vep is a fish out of water tale with Maggie unable to speak French and also unable to decipher the motivations of the film and what Rene is truly hoping to achieve with a shot-for-shot remake. She tiptoes around the intense personalities on set while hoping to put her best work on screen. Further complicating matters, costume designer Zoe admits to having a crush on her while Rene starts to lose his mind and temper. Throughout the hearsay drama, Maggie remains cool as everything seemingly falls apart around her.
The film’s most memorable sequence sees Maggie don the catsuit and slyly tiptoe through her hotel to the blistering riffs of Tunic from Sonic Youth. Maggie sneaks into an occupied room and grabs an ornate necklace that she eventually tosses from a rainy rooftop. Known as the Nightwalking sequence, this scene offers Assayas a dream-like palette to paint what an actualized Les Vampires remake should look like before returning to the bland film-within-a-film. This slick-looking meta exercise bears no resemblance to the verite style offering a stark example of French cinema embracing the aesthetic.
What Irma Vep does well is offer an improvised look at filmmaking with a gritty, experimental tone. Dialogue feels spontaneous and natural, not line-for-line delivery. Exploring the hardships of filmmaking not from the directorial or creative element but the nasty dramas of collaboration. Cinematographer Eric Gautier (Into the Wild, The Motorcycle Diaries) utilizes camera movements that are so casual and inviting but the pace and momentum of the film can be frantic and anxious as tension builds.
Performances are outstanding across the board. Maggie Cheung is relaxed and cool playing a version of herself caught in the fray of 90’s French film culture, legendary Jean-Pierre Léaud The 400 Blows, Masculin Féminin) as René Vidal, Bulle Ogier (The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) as Mireille, and Nathalie Richard (Cache, Code Unknown) as the lovesick Zoe who delivers the best line of the film with “So, now we are in a shop for hookers.”
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Irma Vep arrives on Blu-ray thanks to The Criterion Collection in a two-disc release. Housed in a typical transparent case, Disc One loads the Criterion logo before landing on the static Main Menu screen with typical navigation options located within the slick Criterion slider menus. Disc Two loads directly to a static menu screen offering additional bonus features.
Irma Vep makes the leap to Blu-ray with a new 2k digital transfer restoration supervised by Assayas in the original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. This HD image maintains strong grain levels while color saturation, depth, and black levels are all impressive. Contrast levels are maintained offering a harsh clash of vibrant colors stacked against the deep blacks of Maggie’s latex costume. Originally shot on Super 16mm the Blu-ray retains plenty of the film-like characteristics while offering an obvious bump over previous SD home video releases. Noise and artifacts are prevalent but are just a product of the spontaneous filmmaking atmosphere applied here.
Irma Vep arrives on Blu-ray with a single DTS-HD MA 5.1 French audio track with optional English and English SDH subtitles. Dialogue is clear and clean with no distortion experienced. The use of rock music throughout the film provides an excellent contrast to the intellectual chatter and drama that monopolizes the audio track. Sonic Youth and Serge Gainsbourg supply the memorable tracks from the film inspiring me to dig through my dusty binder of CDs.
The Criterion Collection has provided a wealth of bonus features for this release of Irma Vep. Multiple interview featurettes, archival interviews, and documentaries combine to make this a superb complement to the film. Start with the 2021 Assayas interview or the Les Vampires: Hypnotic Eyes segment.
Irma Vep is a biting experimental analysis of film criticism wrapped in a comedy. Maggie Cheung’s performance is the highlight of the film even for those who are tuned into the film’s multiple layers. Assayas’ tone here is analytical and harsh but the breezy dialogue and docudrama-style camera makes the proceedings inviting even if it isn’t engaging to most. The Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray provides an excellent A/V presentation with a new 2k restoration and wealth of bonus features. Highly Recommended.