The live-wire international breakthrough of Olivier Assayas stars a magnetic Maggie Cheung as a version of herself: a Hong Kong action-movie star who arrives in Paris to play the latex-clad lead in a remake of Louis Feuillade’s classic silent crime serial Les vampires. What she finds is a behind-the-scenes tangle of barely controlled chaos as egos clash, romantic attractions simmer, and an obsessive director (a cannily cast Jean-Pierre Léaud) drives himself to the brink to realize his vision. Blending blasts of silent cinema, martial-arts flicks, and the music of Sonic Youth and Luna into a hallucinatory swirl of postmodern cool, Assayas composes a witty critique of the nineties French film industry and the eternal tension between art and commercial entertainment.
The Criterion Collection presents Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep in a new 2-disc Blu-ray edition, delivering the film on the first dual-layer disc in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. Criterion appears to be using the same 2K restoration Arrow used for their UK edition, which has been scanned from the 16mm and 35mm original negatives. It has been encoded here at 1080p/24hz.
Though I question the colours a little bit—the presentation does have a teal-like, green-ish tint to it, same as Arrow’s—Criterion’s presentation is a solid one, offering a mostly clean film texture in the end with a staggering amount of detail, though still not all that different from Arrow’s. Grain can get very heavy, and the encode does a mostly fine job in rendering it, but there are times, primarily on the outer edges, where it has a blockier or flatter look.
The colour scheme to the film isn’t all that varied, and it has that teal layer to it (I’m unsure if this is intentional as the Arrow edition is where I first saw the film), but colours are otherwise generally pleasing. Black levels also look good, best displayed during Maggie Cheung’s night prowl in the rain, which shows off the shadow details and highlights rather nicely. Outside of some intentional scratches (and some video sourced insertions) the source materials are in excellent shape, the film looking as though it was filmed just recently.
A few issues but in general it's a sharp looking presentation.
Arrow’s edition sported the film’s original 2.0 stereo-surround soundtrack, whereas Criterion provides a 5.1 remix, presented in DTS-HD MA. The film’s not overly showy in relation to the surround mix but the track still manages to get the job done. Dialogue is clear and sharp, as are effects and what music appears, and range can be pretty wide for all of it. Surround activity is limited, really only sticking out with music and the film’s conclusion (which really pushes the bass as well), but there’s a real nice sense of activity during scenes featuring groups of people, like a get-together early on or the various sequences around the filming of the film-within-the-film, where the sounds move noticeably between the speakers. Damage is also not a concern.
Criterion packs a lot of material onto this two-disc set, even porting most of the material found on Arrow’s edition over to this one. Missing is an “audio commentary” that was included on Arrow’s edition, though in actuality it was audio from a Q&A with director Olivier Assayas, the filmmaker offering what I would classify as a career retrospective.
That feature is not a huge loss, other features found on this edition filling in the gap well enough, starting with a new 28-minute interview with Assayas, found on the first disc. The interview can be viewed as a summary of some of his other features found throughout the two discs, Assayas explaining how the film’s idea came to him, what he was trying to say about filmmaking and the film business of the time, and how he was able to put it all together, despite the limited interest from possible financiers due to the experimental nature of it. He also talks a little about the “genre” of films about making films (Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore getting special mention), using Avid for editing, and then creating the film scratches for the film’s final moments. It's a great little summary in the end.
The disc's features then move onto archival material created for the film’s previous releases. There is a 34-minute interview from 2003 featuring Assayas and critic Charles Teeson, who recount their journey to Hong Kong for Cahiers du cinema and discovering the region’s films. They talk about seeing various films from different eras and the filmmakers they met, Wong Kar-wai apparently playing a pivotal role in helping Assayas get in contact with Maggie Cheung when the time came. There is also a 17-minute interview featuring actors Maggie Cheung and Nathalie Richard (also from 2003), the two recounting (in a mix of English and French) the making of the film, which Cheung says was an easier experience for her (outside of the language barrier) since she was not well known in France, allowing her to be a bit more free. She also talks about the experience of acting alongside Jean-Pierre Léaud, whom she humorously describes as “very French.” This is then closed off with 30-minutes’ worth of behind-the-scenes footage, which has a very loose, fly-on-the-wall feel.
All three of those archival features were also found on Arrow’s edition, though the behind-the-scenes footage featured an alternate audio track offering more from the same Q&A that Arrow provided as a “commentary” for the feature film. That alternate audio is not found with the footage on this edition.
The second dual-layer disc packs on some more lengthy material, including what appears to have been an online interview/video created by Assayas for the Belgian publisher “Sabzian” entitled The State of Cinema 2020. The video features the director (reading from his article) sharing his thoughts around the current “crisis” in cinema, though this isn’t necessarily a bad thing as he explains for the next 46-minutes. He touches on current trends like, films being created for streaming services and touching on how both the commercial and the experimental aspects of filmmaking are needed to feed off of each other (“there’s Brakhage [influences found] in Michael Bay”), all playing into cinema growing and adapting. The actual article can be found online and I’d direct most to that instead; the video is simply Assayas sitting at his laptop reading his article, COVID preventing him from speaking at a more formal event, leading to a stale presentation.
The release’s coolest addition, though is the inclusion of the sixth episode from Louis Feuillade’s 1915-1916 film serial Les vampires, entitled The Hypnotic Eyes. This 59-minute episode is the one that was the focus in Irma Vep, which has the distinction of also featuring actor/director/artist Musidora as Irma Vep. To accompany this, Criterion also includes the 67-minute 2013 documentary Musidora: The Tenth Muse, which offers an incredibly in-depth look into the life of the artist, including her film work, writings, and art, and even features audio excerpts from interviews with the woman herself. Assayas talks about her a little in the new interview and how that played into Cheung's part, so the addition of this documentary is more than appropriate.
As to the episode from Les vampires: Criterion appears to be using the same restoration (a 1996 one produced by the Cinématheque Française) that Kino used for their edition, though this presentation presents French intertitles—with English subtitles—instead of the English intertitles Kino uses for their edition. Doing a comparison between this presentation and Kino's they otherwise look the same.
The disc then closes with a couple of more archival features: a 2-minute “appreciation” of Maggie Cheung created by Assayas in 1997, called Man Yuk: A Portrait of Maggie Cheung, followed by 4-minutes worth of black-and-white rushes from the film, which features Cheung on the rooftops and is, I believe, some of the same footage used for the little montage at the end of the main feature. Both also appeared on Arrow’s edition.
An insert, featuring a lengthy essay on the film and Assayas’ work by Aliza Ma, closes off the release.
Though it’s missing those audio-only features that Arrow’s edition has, Criterion’s edition manages to provide a far more satisfying collection of material, thanks to the new Assayas contributions and the inclusion of the episode from Feuillade’s Les vampires.
A fairly comprehensive 2-disc set featuring strong supplements and a sharp presentation for the film.