in Criterion Month

Once again I’m using a vague thematic connection to combine two reviews into one and cover for the fact that I waited too long to watch these movies and then became busy with other things when I should have been writing. In this instance, it’s two slightly different, unusual takes on life in the mid-Nineties. One is Irma Vep, which is specifically about the French film industry as it was in that era. The other is The Last Days of Disco, which is actually set in the “very early” Eighties but oozes Nineties sensibilities (and a fair bit of retrospective dramatic irony). Well, chances are I won’t even get this condensed double feature up before midnight so let’s not waste any more time and get jiggy with it!

Irma Vep (1996)

I showed my whole as on the draft podcast when I expressed hope that Irma Vep would take a turn for the supernatural. I guess, in my heart of hearts, I was trying to trick myself into not willingly picking yet another movie about making movies. But whoops! I did that. Irma Vep is a 1996 film written and directed by Olivier Assayas, who recently returned to this material to remake it as a miniseries for HBO. Which is pretty meta, considering the film within this film already is a remake, that of Louis Feuillade’s classic silent film Les Vampires.

Les Vampires is a serial that ran from 1915-1916 about a gang of cat burglars in Paris called “The Vampires” was are led by the masked “Irma Vep,” a woman who’s name just happens to be an anagram of “vampire.” 80 years later, director René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is in the process of filming a remake starring Hong Kong actress Maggie (Maggie Cheung). René is eccentric and passionate about paying tribute to his cinematic heritage. Maggie seems to believe in his vision, but mostly is just trying her best to keep up with everyone despite not really knowing what she’s doing (she doesn’t speak French and says few French movies made it to Hong Kong). Her lifeline is Zoé (Nathalie Richard), a costume designer working on the film who takes a liking to Maggie. They get along well, but things get messy when another crew member tells Maggie that Zoé is interested in her. Things do get a bit surreal but mostly stay in the realm of the drama between these artists with conflicting ambitions.

While I don’t know enough about French cinema to get all the references Assayas included in Irma Vep, but the vibe I got was that this was kind of a funeral for what used to be. Despite the indie boom of the Nineties, Assayas could see the writing on the wall, I guess. Especially, I was amused at how familiar the criticism characters give of arthouse films was to me. They talk about how boring old and non-American movies and how much they’d rather be watching Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jean-Claude Van Damme. Fuck the pretentious shit, bring on the big budget action, am I right? I love that people talk about Maggie’s Irma Vep costume not in comparison to the original, but in comparison to Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman costume in Batman Returns.

But the greatest strength of Irma Vep is its portrayal of being an outsider. Maggie is not just the new person on this production, she’s a foreigner, she doesn’t speak the language, and she’s the only Asian person in the cast and crew. I really felt for Maggie, the way people constantly are talking behind her back can be really traumatic but she tries her absolute best and even fights for René’s vision. Was this in someway a reflection of Cheung’s real-life marriage to Assayas? One can only wonder…

The Last Days of Disco (1998)

You may remember that I’ve already watched Metropolitan. I skipped over Barcelona to get to third movie in Whit Stillman’s “Doomed-Bourgeois-in-Love series,” The Last Days of Disco for two reasons: I liked that it starred people I’d heard of and the subject matter sounded more appealing. To the first one, I’ll make a note to Future Sean: all that matters in Whit Stillman movies is how much screentime Chris Eigeman gets. He’s the only star who matters. To the second one, well, I guess what I found out is that Whit Stillman’s kinda gonna do his thing no matter the context.

The Last Days of Disco says it’s set in the “very early Eighties” which might be a cheeky way of admitting it’s actually set in 1979, since we do see Disco Demolition Night represented during the film’s events. Alice (Chloë Sevigny) and Charlotte (Kate Beckinsale) are readers at a New York publishing firm who spend their nights at an exclusive disco club. There they engage in two activities: dancing and socializing with their yuppie friend group, which includes: Jimmy (Mackenzie Astin), who works in advertising and tries to impress clients by getting them into the club; Josh (Matt Keeslar), and ADA who’s also manic depressive; Tom (Robert Sean Leonard) another lawyer who Alice is interested in, and Des (Chris Eigeman); one of the managers of the club who spends his time hooking up with women and then pretending to realize he’s gay. So I guess you could say, in extremely Nineties fashion, this is story about a group of young friends in New York City looking for love.

In short, this is a funny movie full of out-of-touch, intelligent, white narcissists ping-ponging between relationships with each other. Mixed in with that is a bunch of fun disco music dance scenes and… uh… that’s about it. I thought Sevigny and Beckinsale were great, but it’s Chris Eigeman who I love. He’s just a very funny actor who was apparently bred to make Whit Stillman and Noah Baumbach movies in the way that Tom Holland was born to play Spider-Man. But yeah, this didn’t register to me as an insightful document of a particular time in pop culture history nor a touching or profound depiction of love or lust in young adulthood. It’s just a bunch of amusing, erudite conversations. Although I did appreciate getting to vicariously live through my nightmare of living with roommates in a railroad apartment. What a dumb thing those are!