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Les Vampires (Louis Feuillade) 1915 , Irma Vep (Oliver Assayas) 1997   


            Iím not sure if Louis Feuilladeís entire oeuvre is as high in quality and eminently enjoyable as his once lost, now famed, 1915 seminal silent serial Les Vampires. The few shorts by him that Iíve seen certainly suggest his output was consistently inspired. Still, the exceptionally prolific director made over 700 films over about twenty years, most short, but many quite long (Les Vampires is divided into ten chapters, and about 7 1/2 hours long in total), so I wouldnít even begin to assume that Iíve got a handle on his output or style. What I will note is that watching his Les Vampires has been one of the most gratifying cinematic experiences that Iíve ever had.   

            Les Vampires has been largely unavailable for mass American consumption, playing mostly in obscure revival houses and the odd film festival over the years, but it was restored and released on video in 1998 and DVD in 2000. Itís certainly the sort of populist film that plays best as it was intended: as a serial seen with a mass audience. As such, itís absolutely tragic that it hasnít received better treatment throughout time. That itís still only available as a high priced collection on home video or DVD means that itís popularity probably wonít ever reach critical mass, but we have to take what we can get in cases like this, I suppose. Apparently, even in its original U.S. theatrical release it was somewhat mishandled, and the film was banned for a time in its native France for its ineffectual portrayal of French police. Thanks to the DVD copy of the film that I purchased, I watched the series one episode per day over roughly two weeks, and the film managed to inspire a sense of anticipation that Iíve rarely felt, prompting me to speculate what would happen next. I purposely denied myself the pleasure of watching the series in one fell swoop. I figured it was a privilege denied to most Americans over the last ninety years to be able to experience the film for the first time as a serialized work. 

            Simply put, Les Vampires, an action adventure that follows the exploits of ďThe VampiresĒ, a clandestine group of gadget using, elaborately plotting, Parisian thieves (who arenít literal bloodsuckers, but do feed off the rich), and the reporter thatís attempting to capture them, blows almost any modern action film out of the water, in terms of the sheer delight that it inspired in me. The thing that shocked me the most about watching the film was the complete lack of quaintness that I associated with the film. It pulls no punches (the first chapter is called ďThe Severed HeadĒ) and entertains completely on the intended level. Though Iíve loved plenty of silent movies that Iíve seen before, I canít quite say that I expected that something that was so unabashedly an action film made for mass consumption by 1915ís audiences would be so damned accessible to my modern sensibilities. The way Feuillade stages his stunts make them easily as thrilling as anything Harrison Ford does on screen. His editing style doesnít lean toward montage, instead favoring a usually still camera and employing deep focus to create a real sense of the environment that the movie takes place in, as opposed to allowing  the impression that the action is setbound. He doesnít alter his style when the film  shows us the stunts, so when one of the Vampires climbs out of a window, we actually get to watch the entire precarious-looking feat unfold. Thereís a real sense of danger here, and the way that the film continually dispatches lead characters makes you always fear the worst. It is genuinely immensely gripping. It's edge-of-your-seat stuff.  

    Thereís definitely some subtext to be observed here, such as the way that the film, escapist fare that it is, does not acknowledge that the First World War is going on. Still, the fear that the Vampires make you feel canít be completely disassociated from that of the war. The DVD version of the series includes For the Children, a short directed by Feuillade that features the cast made to benefit war orphans, so itís quite obvious that the filmmakers were acutely aware of the foreboding state of affairs and their responsibility to address it. Also noteworthy is the filmís perception of Parisí tabloid culture. A surprising number of the plot events come about after one of the characters reads about something (such as the arrival of a rich American) in the newspaper. Among the paperís readership, Philippe and Mazamette (wonderfully played by Marcel Levesque: his ex-Vampire turned nearly straight is the filmís highlight), the heroes of the tale, are minor celebrities. The paper covers their exploits, and there are a few instances where a fawning admirer gives extra leeway to one of them due to their status. That Mazamette isnít quite the hero that the press makes him out to be is one of the filmís more satiric points. The Parisian culture we glimpse is one where a reputation is key, and upon meeting another, a name card is always presented, almost as a badge. The perception of a person becomes almost as important as what they actually are. Irma Vep, the most dominant member of ďThe VampiresĒ, uses a variety of disguises to infiltrate the homes of her victims. Because sheís a woman, she is perceived as less of a threat, and she notably outlasts many of her compatriots since her gender keeps her from assuming the role of Grand Vampire, and largely keeps her immediately out of harmís way.   


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The reason that I bring up such subtext in a film thatís so wonderfully textual is because Irma Vep, a masterful 1997 French comedy from director Oliver Assayas that prompted me to seek out the serial in the first place (and probably prompted the American video release of Les Vampires), is so laden with it. Certainly, the dominant theme is that the crew that makes a film is a bit of a vampire, feeding off the creative juices of the director. Irma Vep, which chronicles a washed-up filmmaker as he mounts a misguided but ambitious, still-silent remake of Feuilladeís serial, shows that when the director has little inspirational lifeblood to offer, the entire group will starve creatively. The filmís main character is Maggie Cheung, who plays herself quite well, and much of the filmís drama comes from her attempts to get in touch with Irma Vep, her role in the remake. The process that an actor goes through is roughly analogous to the experience that the character Irma Vep goes through during the serial. Irmaís changes as she accommodates herself to each of the several Grand Vampires, successively becoming inspiration and lover to each of them, can clearly be aligned with the strange bedfellows that result as different actors are paired with different directors for each project.  

Thereís much more to Irma Vep than Maggieís admittedly fascinating fall into her character, however. A lot of the film seems to function as a cinematic state of affairs, examining the functions and motivations behind the movies we see. Several times during the film, we are given glimpses at varying modes of production. There are explicit discussions about Hollywood fare, the Hong Kong cinema, and auteur-driven French movie making. I wouldnít say the film necessarily advocates one mode over another, though it snarkily shows the director taking a swig of Coke after giving some inane stage directions to Maggie, suggesting his lack of ideas is profoundly American. Irma Vepís own style is quite immediate, and its hand-held camerawork takes us along on Maggieís wild ride into a foreign world of filmmaking. It manages to mildly rebuff the Honk Kong cinema when its biggest proponent seems only interested in advancing it to further rally against the state of French film, and Maggie notes that she doesnít get to see much in the way of imported films, suggesting their market is rather closed-minded. The fictional action film that Maggie had made before this remake of Les Vampires sounds like a rather boring genre retread as well.    

The French auteur film comes under heavy fire as well. Rene Vidal, the once-successful director of the Les Vampires remake, is quite obviously doing the film because he has hit a bit of a creative dead end. He bandies about spouting pretentious hyperbole about Feuilladeís masterpiece, and itís only when confronted with his dailies that he really realizes his ideas arenít coming together as he had planned. He does have a degree of passion for this project, but that passion seems to be found mostly in his sexual attraction to Maggie. Rene is fascinating because he shows that when the auteur director finally gives in and makes a film that is one hundred percent a cinematic expression of his own obsessions and thoughts (which should be the auteur theoryís ideal) his film is incoherent to anyone but himself. The other French director that the film shows is not any more of an ideal. Staunchly convinced his compatriot is wrong in his convictions, his tastes veer even more toward the mainstream. He quickly squelches the one personal touch that Rene brought to the project. He works not to express a piquant creative desire, but instead to get off the governmentís dole. The ultimate suggestion of Irma Vep is that if directors and audiences remain at odds with each other about what they want to be and see, then creation really cannot commence, and in its stead there will only be reactionary regurgitation. Thereís something truly profound and beautiful about Reneís original concept, and his definite conviction is what convinces Ms. Cheung to sign on to the project in the first place. The movie with thatís lurking within Irma Vep could be fascinating, but because of the misguided nature of its creation, the audience will never know. Itís only Feuilladeís film that seems to get any true reverence here, since, despite (because of?) its populist goals, it was the product of veraciousness.    

Itís inspiring that these two movies, made at polar ends of the cinemaís history with completely different aesthetic and ideological goals in mind, can both inspire provocative audience response in the same person. Despite their vast divergences from each other, both films are easily classifiable as bona fide masterpieces. Sadly, both are rather obscure as well, only reaching the most hardcore of film fans. The incredible existence of these two films shows that thereís an unbounded universality in cinema that makes the medium function as so many wonderful things to so many people. Those are something to be celebrated not decried. That filmic assets such as these can go relatively unrewarded by history and commercial success demonstrates both how rich and how blind our cinematic landscape truly is. 

Les Vampires - * * * * Masterpiece 

Irma Vep Ė * * * * Masterpiece 


Jeremy Heilman