Bechdel Test Canon: Irma Vep
As a media studies scholar, I’m increasingly interested in labor. Often, family members and friends outside of the field have trouble understanding what we do in media studies. Either people think we want to make movies or are just stalling as humanities programs grind on into extinction. I actually haven’t given up on the idea of making movies, but much of my training in my MA program focused on textual analysis, which holds less interest for me as I continue my studies. Who cares what I think the color palette in Heathers’ signifies? Though I still think there’s value in old-school feminist film theory, I’m much more concerned now with production culture. Who works together to make the stuff we watch?
Last semester, I took a class on media franchising. I didn’t go in with any expectations, particularly since I assumed that I didn’t watch much franchised media. Sure, I’ve seen Buffy, but I’ve yet to watch the complete Star Wars series and am in no rush. However, I discovered I was implicated in the culture of media franchising in a number of ways.
I keep returning to three concepts: One is the notion of production identities, a term used by Avi Santo to get at the collaborative, oftentimes competitive, nature of work as a professional brand created by a media producer that is often challenged by other professionals within the field. Another is the idea of remaking media properties, which can be high stakes if we’re talking about sexifying Rainbow Brite or de-ethnicizing Dora. Finally, though the class focused on mainstream media texts, franchising logic certainly seeps into niche, indie-friendly fare. Zooey Deschanel is a multi-platform star. Pitchfork mounts festivals. Joanna Newsom sings with Muppets.
As a meditation on French production culture, Olivier Assayas’ 1996 feature Irma Vep illustrates all three of these concepts in various ways. The characters are invested in their own production identities and are brought into the process of adaptation. Esteemed director René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud, immortalized in freeze frame as Antoine Doinel in François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows) is nervous about risking his reputation by remaking Louis Feuillade’s mid-1910s silent film series Les vampires and is attracted to his lead. Actress Maggie Cheung, playing herself, is breaking from the Hong Kong action movies that then defined her career. In doing so, she encounters racist assumptions about her proficiency in French and English, her knowledge of French cinema, and her ability to lose herself in the sexual, physically demanding title role of Irma Vep (an anagram of “vampire”). She also has to fight against objectification and leering advances each time she puts on her character’s latex catsuit. Costume designer Zoé (Nathalie Richard) risks embarrassing herself in front of an international film star by revealing a crush on Cheung that isn’t reciprocated. To add a layer of intertextuality, Assayas and Cheung later married and divorced. They also collaborated again on 2004’s Clean.
The film views adaptation as a process that is incredibly vulnerable to mutation, particularly when the move to contemporize source material might date the effort. The film uses Luna’s cover of Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” with Stereolab’s Laeticia Sadier on vocals, to illustrate this point. Vidal is unsure of how to make a silent film series so beloved by his own countrymen and have it meet the demands of a feature-length film or a contemporary international audience. Zoé must execute other people’s vision in her work, which limits her handiwork to copying what Michelle Pfeiffer wore in Batman Returns. Cheung shoulders the burden of bringing Hong Kong film to French cinema, despite the fact that she doesn’t do many of her own stunts or didn’t have access to many French films growing up.
What I find particularly interesting about Irma Vep’s adaptation of Les vampires is the noticeable difference in actresses’ bodies. The original series features women with thicker, curvier bodies. By the mid-1990s, however, demands and expectations placed on actresses' figures changed as standards of female beauty became more constrictive and rigidly defined. Shayla Thiel-Stern notes a marked difference between the average size of the actresses in the original and remade 90210 series. Something similar is operating in Irma Vep. The women in Les vampires seem zaftig in contrast to their lithe counterparts. The film uses the catsuit to draw attention to the labor involved for actresses to maintain a certain shape. Cheung is sewn into her costume and must maintain a certain weight to make sure it doesn’t stretch or sag.
Irma Vep is a magnificently varied film, integrating film footage, press interviews, gossip, and film’s hurry-up-and-wait production schedule. Cheung in particular does a masterful job playing herself, at once transparent and opaque. While this may seem like a backhanded compliment, it must be difficult to play an actress. The job requires a lot of negotiation; actresses must please studio executives, producers, directors, crew, and journalists. They also have to figure out and then lose themselves in the roles they take on. Finally, they must insist upon keeping some part of their personal lives at a remove from the public. Cheung also has a complex relationship with her catsuit, at times viewing it as a costume, a symbol of restriction, a site of objectification, and a garment she finds personally very sexy and empowering. Irma Vep makes film look like work, yet manages to make that seem interesting. I think it accomplishes this by making you care about everyone involved in the production, from Cheung to Zoé to various crew members, many of whom are working on multiple productions and have a storied history with the demanding, neurotic Vidal. Film still carries with it the baggage of auteur theory, a term championed by Truffaut, developed by critic Andrew Sarris, and associated with the French New Wave. Assayas issues a corrective, making clear that films are inherently collaborative, rarely utopian, and made by people who are always between projects and constantly negotiating who they are on- and off-screen.
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