Tag Archives: Olivier Assayas

A quick note on Irma Vep

Just finished bingeing on Irma Vep which I started watching yesterday and loved. I was thinking what a great course it would make, using the original Feuillade and the nineties Assayas films as anchors but dealing with different topics the series brings up through other films about cinema in its broadest sense. Keaton’s Sherlock Holmes Jr, Hellzappopin, Minnelli’s The Bad and the Beautiful and Two Weeks in Another Town, Fellini’s 81/2, The Day of the Locusts, The Player etc.

I liked how the series brings up and has a view on almost every topic related to filmmaking: the beauty of a travelling shot; the carelessness of the production in relation to safety; stars and actors; the importance of costuming; the changing technology; blockbuster cinema; the scleroticism of current art cinema; the possibilities of micro-cinema; cinema as product for systems, in this case global luxury goods advertising; objectification and the #metoo movement; consideration of effects, affect and value on how and where one sees the work (some derisory comments on You Tube); the centrality of desire at every level and at every stage of the work; the role of fantasy and light. I liked the structure of the piece with the inter-cutting of Feuillade’s series, re-enactment of the making of the original Irma Vep, and the filming of the current series; and then interspersing all of that that with dramatic re-enactments of Musidora’s memoirs.

I also adored the actors, Vikander of course, but also Vincent Lacoste as the vain leading man and particularly Vincent Macaigne as the director – clearly based on some level on Assayas – but a director unlike we’re used to seeing represented: insecure, impotent, still obsessed by adolescent sexual fantasies — in this case originating, as with so many of his generation, with Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel in The Avengers ––  depressed and scared etc. Lars Eidinger, Tom Sturridge, Fala Chen and so many of the others also impressed and it was great to see Kristen Stewart appear at the end.

I liked the melodrama of the sexual infatuations, the fluidity of the representations and the matter-of-fact way they were presented. The series brings all these issues up and though one isn’t always in agreement – What is all this spirit stuff?- I welcomed the way it encourages us to think through the current mediascape historically, from a personal perspective. I have to think about it some more but I loved the experience of seeing it, both as metacinema and as a work in itself, and recommend if you haven’t already seen it; though I’m probably late to the party as usual.

José Arroyo

The Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas, French/Switz/ Germany/USA/Belgium, 2014)


Can a film be both fascinating AND dull? In The Clouds of Sils Maria Juliette Binoche is Maria Enders, a celebrated actress and star, who first became famous in Maloja Snake a work about an older woman, Helena, who falls in love with a much younger girl, Sigrid, and is driven to suicide. Then, she played Sigrid; now she is asked to play Helena. Kristen Stewart is Valentine, Maria’s super-efficient, smart and cool assistant. The relationship between Maria and Valentine is the opposite side of the coin of that of Helena and Sigrid but as Valentine is helping Maria with her lines, one often can’t tell where the boundary lies between the real and fictional relationship between them; and the film creates an interesting tension between the layers of fictional worlds in which this tension gets played out and in doing so complexly dramatizes questions on the nature of acting and being.

The interplay between Stewart and Binoche, and the differing styles in which the act it out, also adds an interesting twist on this. Everything people claim for Streep, I feel for Binoche. I simply think there’s no one of her generation better, and layers of conflicting emotion are conveyed absolutely transparently. In this film she’s beautiful and plain, feminine and masculine, flirtatious and castrating; she runs through the gamut and it’s all clearly understandable as coming from one character. Plus, she is also a star and one can’t take one’s eyes of her, at least until Kristen Stewart comes in to split our gaze. She’s not transparent at all but she is mesmeric. You don’t know what she’s thinking really but one keeps on looking intently in the hope of finding out. They’re great together. From their interplay, interesting ideas about the connection between age, desire, and vulnerability are played out, with Stewart forcefully making a claim for the desirability of Maria/Helena and the desire and vulnerability of the much younger Sigrid.

The film is fascinating on acting, performance, performing, stardom, aging, celebrity culture and on debates on the nature of cinema and cinematic art in our time. It gets even livelier when Chloë Grace Moretz, playing Jo-Anne Ellis, a star of X-Men type sci-fi action films and active participant in paparazzi-infused internet celebrity culture, gets cast opposite Maria in the role of Sigrid. Jo-Anne will contradict all of Valentine’s interpretations, whilst Maria, who has learned form Valentine in the process, will start to think about ways of asserting them. This is a fascinating film on the nature of acting, its relation to being, the thin line between them, and how that thin line is made even thinner when the unreality of celebrity culture is thrown in the mix.

The Maloja Snake, a cloud bank that winds its way through the alpine pass like a river or a snake by a twist of nature, thus providing the illusion of winding and forward movement whilst observing it from the top of the mountains but obscuring that which is below, is used as a metaphor for the film. Excerpts from Arnold Fanck’s 1924 film, Cloud Phenomena of Maloja, are used in the film.

The Clouds of Sils Maria is a much more fascinating film to think about then to watch. But one has to undergo the latter in order to engage with the former.

José Arroyo