Irma Vep (1996)

8 06 2008

This could very well be my favorite effort (so far) from Assayas. It most definitely would be if it was a bit more emotionally dynamic than his later features. Here, it is not so much a deep character study as it is a very playful and funny satire of the film-making process. If one is vaguely interested in modern French cinema, or Maggie Cheung (alas, now retired) then this is absolutely essential. It’s not some deep, ponderous masterpiece but rather a wonderful way to spend an hour and a half.

Maggie Cheung, fresh off a recent Hong Kong action film, arrives in Paris in preparation for her role as Irma Vep in a remake of Louis Feuillade’s 1915 film Les Vampires. The film’s director, Rene Vidal, seems to have been on a downward slope in recent years. He tells Maggie that he actually had no interest in the project until he realized that he could use her. The actual production of the film seems to hit a roadblock almost immediately. Rene, frustrated, seemingly disappears off the face of the earth. To make matters worse, his replacement has no interest in using Maggie in the film.

While Assayas has yet fully embraced his current aesthetic in this film, there are some signs of early signs of it. One completely random sequence features Maggie Cheung stumbling around her hotel room with Sonic Youth’s “Tunic” in the background. This seems to come out of nowhere, but it obviously is somewhat of a prelude to Assayas’ later film Demonlover. The rest of the film is much more polished, though, which is somewhat ironic considering that his next effort, Late August, Early September is probably his most chaotic.

Similarly, the overall tone of Irma Vep differs from the other entries in Assayas’ filmography. While his subsequent films would feature more fleshed out characters and consequential narratives, it is here that one feels very easygoing and uneventful. Basically nothing serious is at risk here, even all the relationships are based on very superficial and tame meetings. I suppose I could go as far as to classify this as minimalism but that would falsely imply that the film is “colder” than it actually is. Despite the many differences, this is still very much an Olivier Assayas film and a great one at that.

The American Soldier (1970)

8 06 2008

Even by the standards of early Fassbinder, this film is remarkably cold and austere. At times, it almost becomes ridiculous just how mechanically certain events unfold. Normally, it would be easy to write the film off on the prospect of it being so close to self-parody alone, but the final fifteen minutes represent Fassbinder at his most heartbreaking. He’s working towards this for the film’s entire running time but only towards the end, does it all seem to mesh into one of the strangest yet tragic endings in all of cinema. Undeniably frustrating to those unwilling to participate in something new, but extremely rewarding for those that get over the initial uncomfortable feelings brought on by Fassbinder’s very detached style.

Ricky, a contract killer, returns to Germany after a stay in America, where he most likely served in the Vietnam War. The cops begin to use him as a hitman to take care of local criminals. In between these errands, Ricky returns to the locations of his childhood with his old buddy Franz Walsch, revisits his mother and his emotional perplexed brother. He still has plenty of free time, though, not to mention very sad and lonely. He calls up the front desk of the hotel he is residing at and asks for a woman. The cops send Rosa, who falls in love with Ricky but there’s many people standing in their way of a new life.

One needs only to look at the IMDB comments to see just frustrating the style of early Fassbinder be for an audience. Of course, anyone who expects a straight-forward gangster and/or noir flick will be tremendously disappointed and perhaps, infuriated. But even those who are conscious of the film’s artiness may end up befuddled by the mechanical performances. It’s completely reasonable to be turned off just on the acting alone, but it is important to realize that the acting isn’t mechanical and unnatural because the characters are symbols or metaphors, or anything like that. No, it’s clear that Fassbinder took more than a few (fictitious) courses on Bresson’s acting ideas. If you can’t see just how heartbreaking and painful the final fifteen minutes of this film is, then there’s a good chance you don’t have a pulse.

Japanese Girls at the Harbor (1933)

8 06 2008

On the surface, this is probably the single most straightforward and conventional of all of Shimizu’s films. The story is a bit too simple and melodramatic, but aesthetically speaking, this probably Shimizu’s most radical feature. It seems that his financial and cinematic limitations gave him a free-reign to try different things. I’ve never seen a director make such playful use of intertitles as Shimizu does here. At times, they seem closer to the intertitles in a late 60s/early 70s Godard film than the ones in a conventional silent film. I suppose I couldn’t become as absorbed by this as I was in Shimizu’s other features but that’s mostly has to do with the disconnection my brain has with silent films. Otherwise, this is just as great as anything else he’s ever done.

Teenage schoolgirls Dora and Sunako are the best of friends but their relationship is thrown into question when Sunako begins donating her time to Henry. He seems to be more interested in Yoko, though. Bitter, Sunako acts on her impulses and shoots Yoko. Several years later, Sunako is now a prostitute following an artist, Miura. She feels she is destined to wander around forever, but her friend, Masumi, suggests that she begins a new life in her hometown. Striped from more ideal options, she follows Masumi’s recommendation, but must conjure up her dark(er) past in the process.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this film lacks the emotional power of Shimizu’s later features but as I mentioned earlier, this does have a more experimental aesthetic. That isn’t to say its some sort of Stan Brakhage-esque “avant-garde” film, but rather just a showcase for some of Shimizu’s more unorthodox techniques. The repetition of intertitles, though eventually abandoned, does seem like something one would find in the silent film version of Fassbinder’s Katzlmacher. Even though it is a bit silly, there is one sequence where the font grows in correlation to the rapid-fire cutting. Such a concept is hard to explain in words but it makes sense in motion. Not the greatest of Shimizu’s films, but definitely one worthy of being seen on its own terms.