The Parisian underworld of Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires, comprised of serpentine rooftops, secret passageways, and trap doors, resides on a fault line between two ideologies: the ghostly allure of crime and the righteous rigor of justice. Feuillade’s 399-minute serial, which chronicles the diabolical exploits of a fictional crime syndicate and the investigative journalist trying to bring them down, sees good vs. evil as a parlor game in which safety and protection are grand illusions. Split between 10 chapters, each building stylistically and thematically on the one before, Les Vampires highlights an expanding form of collective mania, Feuillade’s fluid mise-en-scene a thriving garden of immorality deeply rooted and primed to grow in unanticipated directions. Not surprisingly, the soil is seeped in poison.
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Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep uses the iconography of Les Vampires as a springboard to skewer another type of grand illusion: filmmaking. Maggie (Maggie Cheung), a Hong Kong superstar hired for a silent French remake of Feuillade’s film, watches as the ill-fated production slowly crumbles under the weight of each crew member’s ego, specifically her fledgling director, Rene Vidal (Jean-Pierre Leaud). Like the original Irma Vep (played by the magnetic Musidora), Maggie floats through time and space adapting to various climactic situations. Irma Vep creates its own unpredictable world from the cliched terrain of movie remakes; Assayas unleashes the energy of improvisation to combat the soullessness that plagues contemporary commercial films.
WATCH OLIVIER ASSAYAS’ FRENCH FILM MASTERPIECE IRMA VEP ON FANDOR:
Feuillade’s masterpiece is hinged to the floor, wonderfully static with only the occasional dolly or pan to express motion. Assayas’ film won’t stop moving, his camera jumping from character to character like a manic frog searching for a lily pad. Yet the visual motifs of Les Vampires and Irma Vep represent similar themes of urgency and angst, joy and playfulness. In the end, whatever the prize – jewelry, authority, or the power of cinema itself – each film revels in the desperate need to capture what cannot be caught.
Illusions of strength and dominance permeate Les Vampires. Irma Vep’s arch nemesis Moreno (Fernand Herrmann) captures her, only to fall in love with her sleek figure. Feuillade centers Irma in the frame, elbows at sharp angles as if to fend off her captor with a simple pose. But she has no power, no control over her fate, and Moreno drugs Irma moments later.
Early in Irma Vep, Maggie poses in an awkward attempt to recreate the classic iconography of Irma. At this point, Maggie’s stance lacks a historical or thematic connection with the original character, so her pose is essentially a hollow still life. But as Irma Vep unfolds, Maggie takes power of her characterization, re-appropriating images like the one above with a new found sense of authorship.
The Legacy of Masks:
Les Vampires is rife with chilling moments when one of its many villains stares down the audience. This shot of villainous Satanas (Louis Leubas) peering from a decorative mask on a wall exemplifies Feuillade’s obsession with facades. Despite the blatant positioning of the mask, none of the heroes in the scene notice those shark eyes snaking back and forth.
The masks in Irma Vep are not used to hide identity or create suspense. Instead, these props are seen as playthings for crew members unwilling or unable to realize their powerful connections within Feuillade’s film (and, by extension, the legacy of early French cinema). The suffocating smoke billowing from the orifices of the classic “Vampires” hood comes from a crew member exhaling her cigarette during a costume test, a perfect example of the blasé attitude of the crew in Irma Vep towards their source material. The ill-fitting, uncomfortable masks and costumes in Irma Vep are products of their creator’s apathy.
Never trust the illusion of architecture in Les Vampires. Danger lurks behind the faux-doors, walls, and paintings. Here, Moreno discovers a secret passageway, not knowing that fearless journalist Philippe Guerande (Edouard Mathe) waits to ambush him on the other side. While the fallibility of surfaces is often what enables Irma and her compatriots treachery in the first place, it’s also many of them are captured or killed.
Assayas confronts the illusion of surfaces by staging two different incarnations of Irma Vep in the same frame through the use of mirrors. Maggie’s reflection can be seen on the right, as her French stunt double enters frame left. Maggie’s version of Irma begins to splinter off from her stunt double, becoming a more isolated and dynamic figure from the safety net the film industry provides her character. Maggie’s adoption of Irma Vep’s deceptive charms turns into a private relationship with her character, enlivened by the stealthy energy of Feuillade’s film.
The Grand Vampire and Irma Vep escape via rooftop following a daring assassination. Open-air escape routes figure prominently throughout Les Vampires, serving as bridges between the dangerous thrill of criminal acts and the safety of hideouts. Exteriors like the one above represent a momentary freedom for Les Vampires in between the two points, an environment suspended in a sort of sublime limbo where no one can touch them. Feuillade shoots these sequences with long shots, often favoring the sky while tracking Les Vampires as they slither along the rooftops.
Gracefully gliding through the hotel hallway, Maggie steals a piece of jewelry from an unsuspecting woman, then ends up on the rainy hotel rooftop awash in blue hues of fluorescent light. One of the great narrative tangents in film history, Maggie dons the classic Irma Vep suit mid-film to transform her world into an improvised action movie. As with Les Vampires, the rooftop represents a bridge to personal freedom for Maggie, but it also evokes her act of separation from the film crew’s perfunctory remake, and solidifies her dynamic, personal ownership of the Irma Vep persona.
In the world of Les Vampires, the character of Irma Vep is a constantly changing illusion. She has a seamless ability to adapt, morph, and evolve depending on the situation, making her identity a revolving door of possibilities. The sudden shifts in Irma’s identity are signified in the two images above. One moment Irma’s cloak nearly covers her entire face, except for those puckering lips, and the next she’s revealing herself anew, smiling and confronting the camera with eyes wide open.
In the harrowing final moments of Irma Vep, Assayas further complicates the identity of Irma Vep by screening Rene Vidal’s edited footage of his Les Vampires remake. This sequence reveals the visceral effect her embodiment of Irma has had on Vidal himself. This hypnotic pop art montage fuses Maggie’s Vep with experimental sound and fury, expressing the infinite invention erupting from this character.
Irma Vep is an anagram for “vampire,” so in a sense the sign outside the Hooting Owl Cabaret is another credit sequence for Fueillade’s film. Titles of all kinds represent a form of illusory sense of meaning in Les Vampires: whether it’s business cards, letters, or telegrams, there’s often a debilitating assumption that words can bring understanding to an unending chain of volatile incidents.
The jagged lettering, the angled prose, and the red title card: Assayas ends Irma Vep with closing credits shooting out in every conceivable direction. Instead of offering false assurances, these animated characters threaten to transcend the confines of the frame much like Irma and the Vampires gang. Decades later, silent cinema’s legacy still lives, despite the best efforts to dilute it. As Rene Vidal says, “Respect the silence.”
Glenn Heath Jr. is a film critic living in San Diego, CA. He writes for Slant Magazine, The House Next Door, Not Coming to a Theater Near You, SanDiego.com, and In Review Online.