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By Adam Nayman
The penultimate sequence of Olivier Assayas’ Something in the Air takes place on a British film set in the 1970s, shortly after the film’s adolescent protagonist, Gilles (Clément Metayer), has secured a job with a company churning out cheapie monster movies. The implications of Gilles’ studio apprenticeship are significant. By this point, we’ve learned that he has aspirations as a serious artist and have seen him palling around with activist cineastes and underground, avant-gardist types, so this switch from agit-prop to Grade-Z science fiction might seem something of a sell-out. But as Something in the Air is something of a film à clef, we know that this is not the case, and that Gilles is no mere schlockmeister-in-training: instead, the kid staring down the fiberglass monster menacing the bit of crumpet in the One Million Years B.C. bikini is going to grow up to be—spoiler alert!—Olivier Assayas.
This depiction of a cramped, frenzied behind-the-scenes environment is as realistic as the events being filmed are fantastical. In interviews, Assayas has cited the time he spent working for Kevin Connor, a journeyman Brit whose credits include Warlords of Atlantis and The Land That Time Forgot, and indicated that the particulars of the film-within-the-film (which appears to be a time-travel adventure involving Nazis, a submarine, cavegirls, and some kind of undersea beast) are a tribute to the sorts of movies he helped out on in his early days. “When I worked on the Richard Fleischer film Crossed Swords, there were all these actors from another world,” Assays told me in 2012. “Charlton Heston, George C. Scott, Rex Harrison… and it was shot by Jack Cardiff in CinemaScope, like in the 1950s. What I’m saying is that during my first experiences in cinema, I was confronted with something that felt to me like the distant past, like movies from another era.”
That sense of past-ness is palpable in Something in the Air, and it gives these dinosaurs and cave-babes a nicely ironic thematic resonance: in a film about the speed with which youth blurs into experience, this dumb-show travesty of history and evolution is funny stuff indeed. But it’s clear that Gilles (and Assayas) have a real fondness for this stuff as well. When Assayas became a film critic for the Cahiers du Cinéma in 1980, he specialized in reviews of American horror and genre movies, which he tried to reclaim on formal and ideological grounds the same way that Jean-Luc Godard had championed Hollywood product in the same pages several decades earlier. (Reviewing The Fog, Assayas connected John Carpenter to Howard Hawks—a fruitful comparison that has persisted in studies of the former’s oeuvre.)
Like Godard, Assayas quickly transitioned from film criticism to filmmaking. While it would be a stretch to overlay the work of these two men of very different generations and backgrounds too closely, each have produced enduring works that take place on film sets: Godard’s Contempt and Assayas’ Irma Vep, the latter of which is in many ways an homage to the former, which it resembles in its basic plot outline and wickedly satirical tone. In both films, an ambitious movie producer commissions a remake of an established classic, with chaotic results; and both cast significant figures from world cinema as “themselves.” In Contempt, that part goes to Godard’s hero Fritz Lang, who desires in his dotage to stage an adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey as an art movie, as opposed to the more mercantile interests of his philistine playboy producer (Jack Palance). In G. Pierrot Minot’s 1963 documentary The Dinosaur and the Baby, which was shot during the production of Contempt, Godard interviews Lang and asks the older director’s permission to refer to him as a “dinosaur,” which Lang grants him; indeed, he seems to take it as a compliment.
In Irma Vep, the designated dinosaur is René Vidal, a director of Nouvelle Vague vintage played by Godard’s former star Jean-Pierre Léaud, depicted as the last member of a cinematic species on the verge of extinction. The baby, meanwhile, is a babe—Hong Kong movie star Maggie Cheung, whom Assayas wed after the film (the couple would divorce in 2001)—and a walking contradiction: at once impossibly glamorous and appealingly down to earth. Touching down in Paris without a firm idea of the part she’s supposed to play in Vidal’s remake of Louis Feuillaude’s classic silent serial Les Vampires, Cheung is quickly swept up in a shoot that’s fast, cheap and spiralling out of control. Like Brigitte Bardot in Contempt, she quickly becomes an object of desire, both as her character in the film-within-the-film (the eponymous, cat-suited villainess Irma) and also off-duty, as the whole crew (men and women alike) moon over her.
Godard’s famous dictum that “the best way to criticize a film is to make another film” is something that Assayas has taken to heart, and Irma Vep is probably his densest and most rewarding exercise in metacinematic analysis. In laying out a scenario where a seminal masterpiece of French cinema is reimagined with a bankable foreign star famous for her work in HK action fare, Assayas briskly inventories all of the millennial upheavals affecting the global film industry: the complications of independent financing; the politics of transnational productions; the anxiety of influence among auteur filmmakers; and the encroaching spectre of Tarantino-style postmodernism, in which cinema gorges on its own history and regurgitates it for a market that keeps getting younger and more impatient.
As in the scene in Something in the Air, none of the heady ideas in Irma Vep would mean much if the presentation wasn’t so credible. No less than Contempt, Irma Vep captures that toggling between utter boredom and heart-stopping panic that cumulatively comprises the actual, physical act of moviemaking: the early-morning calls and costume fittings, the closed screenings of rushes (a detail that admittedly dates it in our fully digital age), and the presence of lurking journalists who descend on the set to ask questions in between takes. In the film’s funniest and most unsettling scene, a TV interviewer (played with dead-eyed politeness by Antoine Basler) accosts Cheung with his thoughts about John Woo (“it’s like ballet”) and advises her that Vidal-style art movies are “over”—a line that Basler delivers with just the right amount of lazy, capital-C contempt.
joke, of course, is that the kinds of director-centric movies that Cheung’s
interlocutor declares to be finished (“Thank goodness,” he adds) are alive and
well, first and foremost in the shapely form of Irma Vep itself. In crafting a film of shifting moods and styles—with
the camera creeping around observationally during a cast-and-crew dinner party
and then remaining rigidly fixed in place during an attempted on-set seduction—Assayas
is practicing what his deceptively loose screenplay preaches: a radical mixing
of forms as an antidote to the “death of cinema” doomsaying that was de rigueur in the mid-1990s, a (self-)pity
party for disillusioned cinephiles who lamented the unstoppable march of
Hollywood imperialism and the eroding viability of celluloid itself.
It’s a concept that returns towards the end of Assayas’ new, unmistakably Irma Vep-ish Clouds of Sils Maria, which substitutes Juliette Binoche for Maggie Cheung but retains the earlier film’s key conceit: that the behind-the-scenes drama of moviemaking often not only mirrors the action that ends up onscreen, but actually catalyzes it. Binoche’s Maria Enders is a veteran, much-feted star of stage and screen, who is reflexively distrustful of the CGI-assisted superhero movies beloved by her assistant Val (Kristen Stewart) but also takes roles in them to pay the bills. Towards the end of the film, she’s offered a part in a futuristic epic as a genetically modified character who is described by the director (Brady Corbett) as a “hybrid.” It’s a word that piques her interest: she doesn’t say yes to the role, but she doesn’t say no, either.
Leaving aside the main plot of Sils Maria, which involves Maria’s decision to star in new production of a stage play that launched her career twenty years earlier, this seemingly throwaway encounter, which takes place in a dressing room—the ultimate behind-the-scenes space—functions as a climax of sorts, and also maybe a grace note for the director’s career to date. It implies that in cinema, all of the things that seem to be in conflict are actually matching sets: commerce and ideals, art and trash, production and final product. The concept of hybridity is perfect for Assayas, who has always integrated filmmaking and film criticism, and whose sense of cinema as a medium that reconciles and recombines all of its most disparate elements has been evolving ever since he was the baby smiling wryly at the dinosaur—the primal (behind-the-)scene of a career filled with more intelligently designed movies than any director of his generation.