- From Louis Feuillade to Johnny To:Olivier Assayas on the future of French Cinema
Irma Vep (Olivier Assayas, 1996) centres on an aging French director's remake of Louis Feuillade's crime serial Les Vampires (1915). Matters are complicated, however, when the director, René Vidal (Jean Pierre Léaud), decides to cast a Hong Kong actress, Maggie Cheung, in the role of France's great silent star, Musidora. What began as a fairly straightforward project, the revival of a silent-era classic, turns into a complex reflection on the origins of French cinema and its future in an increasingly globalized world. Two questions demand attention: Why Feuillade? and, Why Hong Kong? In a film about the status of France's national cinema in the 1990s, why make Feuillade's crime serial stand for the quintessential French film of the silent era? And why look to Hong Kong to renew French cinema? Critics have by and large overlooked the first question, and responded to the second by focusing on the figure of Maggie Cheung, analyzing her as the fetishised, oriental other or as a symbol of France's failed encounter with the world. I hope to complicate the question by asking not, "Why Maggie Cheung?" but, "Why Hong Kong cinema?" and more specifically, "Which Hong Kong cinema?" I show that although Irma Vep explicitly associates Hong Kong cinema with Johnny To's 1993 cult action film, Tong fond sam hop/The Heroic Trio, it wilfully misreads Johnny To's fantasy film by filtering it through the lens of the more classical wu xia pian (swordplay) films of King Hu, thereby transforming the popular Heroic Trio into an art film. I argue that by cross-breeding Feuillade with Johnny To/ King Hu, Assayas creates an alternative to Hollywood's own attempt to cross Hong Kong and European cinema, a hybrid represented in Irma Vep by the action film Hard Target (1993), Hong Kong director John Woo's first Hollywood film, starring Jean Claude Van Damme. [End Page 121]
The filming of Irma Vep coincided with the centennial celebration of the birth of cinema, and in such a context, one can readily see how Feuillade might stand for the (distinctly French) splendor of early filmmaking. Grace An identifies his work with "the glorious past of French cinema," (An 2000, 299) while Dale Hudson associates the remake with "a larger project of reasserting national patrimony" (Hudson 2006, 220). Yet the choice of Feuillade as the representative of French cinema strikes me as more than a little odd. Feuillade enjoyed a brief moment of glory under the Surrealists, but his vast cinematic production (over 800 films) had been largely forgotten by the early 1930s. It was not until the 1950s, when Henri Langlois and the Cinémathèque française restored a number of his prints and promoted his legacy, that he once again gained the attention of spectators and critics alike.1 In other words, Feuillade, as we shall see, is not so much an icon of early French cinema as a complex and disputed sign, whose status within the canon of French film was neither immediate nor uncontested. Given this history, wouldn't the Lumière brothers or Méliès have provided a more apt subject for a celebration of the Frenchness of cinema? Why Feuillade?
There are, I would argue, two related answers to this question. Both concern the disputed history of Feuillade's integration into the canon of great French directors, and revolve around two debates that lay at the heart of France's early attempts at defining a national cinema, debates that find deep resonance in Assayas' work. The first concerns the respective merits of popular and art house cinema; the second the relationship between French cinema and its global competition.
Keen to elevate cinema above its status as a fairground entertainment and crown it as the septième art, early French film critics took it upon themselves to demarcate the films of Feuillade, which they considered popular forms of entertainment, from what one might call the art films of the day. They took Feuillade to task for pandering to the tastes of the masses...