Irma Vep | Avatar | Maggie Cheung

In Olivier Assayas’ 1996 film Irma Vep, Hong Kong film and television actress Maggie Cheung plays the Hong Kong film and television actress known as Maggie Cheung – what some would call “playing herself.”

The story revolves around a film crew on a production that is spinning out of control as its director has a nervous breakdown and the production staff fight amongst themselves. The film they are trying to create is a remake of the classic Les Vampires, a French serial from 1915. Maggie Cheung is cast in the role of the central character, Irma Vep, originally played by Musidora.

During the shooting Cheung is told by the director René Vidal (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud) that she needs to become the character more, to dive in and exude the role, to be Irma Vep – a rather typical bit of advice given by directors, especially from those who have grown unsure of their own talents. With this critique Cheung feels the pressure to jump more fully into the character, and this pressure underlies my favorite scene in the film.

Later that evening, when she is alone in her hotel room, Cheung wears her costume and roams around her room. She struggles to find the right emotion and truly sense Vep. At one point she seems like she might lose her mind.

Then she quickly exits into the hallway and begins to prowl. She acts out the role of Irma Vep, sneaking around, avoiding others and doing a bit of spying. She eventually notices a maid carrying some food to a room. After the maid enters, Cheung slips in quietly. The maid leaves and Cheung is hiding in the room watching and listening a woman talk on the phone.

Cheung then notices some costume jewelry lying on a counter.

She takes the jewels and sneaks out of the apartment. At several moments she is nearly seen.

Then, to avoid bumping into some others, she exits out onto the roof, which produces these wonderful images.

After a few moments of contemplation Cheung holds the jewels over the edge of the building and then lets them drop.

The jewels fall, disappearing into the rain.

What I find so fun about this scene is how the character Cheung crosses over into an approximate real-life version of Vep in order to better understand Vep and then, possibly, play Vep better in the film. But it is also a moment in which we get to really see Vep for the first time. And it is also a scene in which the vicarious and transcendent aspects of viewing movies get played out as action itself. When Cheung leaves her room and begins to be Vep she acts out visually/physically the mental condition of that viewers go through as they “play” the characters on the screen in their own fantasies. In other words, she acts the avatar we aspire to in our waking dreams, whether that avatar is Vep or any other character we love, hate, or fetishize.

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