This October marks the 100th anniversary of Les Vampires, a silent film–surprisingly surreal for its era and rife with gothic imagery– that stars Musidora as Irma Vep, France’s original vamp. “It’s not a vampire movie– it’s a cops and robbers caper– and she’s the brains behind the Vampire gang,” explained Michelle Handelman, organizer of an extensive series of events devoted to Les Vampires taking place later this month at a handful of institutions around the city.
As part of 100 Years of Irma Vep, Handelman is also screening her own 2014 film, Irma Vep, the Last Breath, a psychoanalytic exploration of the legendary vamp as much as it is a radical reassessment of Irma Vep, who’s played by both a trans-woman and a drag queen. “Both of the actors bring their own experience of living in the margins to the character,” Handelman said.
But hold up, how is it that some long-ass French silent film from 1915 is at all relevant today? Must we really sit for many, many hours, engaging with a medium that hadn’t quite mastered itself? (As a ten-part serial film weighing in at seven hours, it’s one of the longest movies ever made.) Sure, Musidora is still striking in a black skin-tight body suit 100 years on, but Michelle Pfeiffer pretty much won Catwoman back in 1992, breaking anyone’s ability to ever top such perfection. (Anne Hathaway, as if.) So what are we to do with this cinematic proto-femme fatale?
Thankfully, Michelle Handelman shares my fixation on Catwoman, and convinced me that actually Irma Vep might be even more of a badass. “When I saw Les Vampires, it was when I was starting to be obsessed by silent film, and I saw this character Irma Vep for the first time and I realized she was the prototype Catwoman and from that point on, Irma Vep just became a part of my life,” she recalled. “The cinematic vamp and dangerous, dark women of the underground have always been an interest of mine because I think they are the women who changed the world.”
Handelman pressed that Irma Vep, a sly criminal who leads a gang of jewel thieves known as Les Vampires, as well as Musidora, the actress who played her, embodies a high point for women in cinema. “In so many ways the representation of women on screen has regressed,” Handelman explained. “The early cinematic vamps– Musidora, the American actress Theda Bara, Louise Brooks, who came a little bit later on– these women were really interesting because they were portrayed as having this agency that was driven by their intelligence and not their sexuality.”
Of course, there’s a bit of a caveat to that last bit. “There was certainly a sexual, sensual, and predatory element to all of these characters, but it was really their intelligence that allowed them to move forward within these scripts,” Handelman clarified.
Whereas femme fatales and overtly sexy female characters today are often portrayed as crazy, these original vamps not only successfully dominated men, they were also clever. “The vamps in cinema today and more recently– I’m thinking of Sharon Stone and others– the only power they have is in relationship to their sexual prowess over a man,” Handelman pointed out. “It’s really despicable the way the representation of women has totally regressed, particularly in American cinema– women have been reduced to just being the sexual interest of a male lead.”
The empowered female lead of early French cinema wasn’t reserved solely for fictitious characters; Musidora herself was a pioneering woman. Following her role as Irma Vep, the actress “became this icon within French culture,” Handelman said. “She was sort of a mascot to French soldiers during the war– they carried pictures of her, they wrote her fan letters. She really worked the war effort and used this fame to expand her own vision as an artist, film director, and novelist.” In fact, Musidora went on to become one of the earliest female directors in Europe, directing and producing about a dozen films, most of them in the teens and ’20s. She made her last film in 1950. Much of her work, however, has been lost or destroyed and even in their own time, her films never succeeded fantastically at the box office.
“In her final days, the myth of Musidora is that she was this ticket taker at La Cinématheque Francaise and that no one knew the old woman in the booth taking their tickets was actually this legendary vamp of French cinema,” Handelman explained. “That really struck me– this bittersweet, melancholic tale of a woman with so much power who was then silenced by a patriarchal society that wasn’t ready for her.” One image seen repeatedly in Handelman’s films is that of an old woman in a ticket booth.
Musidor’s contribution to French and early cinema has essentially been ignored. As part of 100 Years of Irma Vep, the Fashion Institute of Technology and Columbia University’s Women Film Pioneers Project have teamed up to host a lecture dedicated entirely to Musidora’s artistic output (Tuesday, Oct. 27, at 6:30 p.m., FIT Pomerantz Building).
Despite the fascinating history, the impetus to reimagine and revive Irma Vep didn’t come entirely from criticism and historical revision. It was also a rather intuitive decision. “As I started to work on this project, I really thought about the character Irma Vep and why I had been obsessed with her for so long,” she explained. “I asked myself, ‘What is my relationship to her?’ ‘What am I trying to explore in this film I’m making?’ I realized there were several connections in my life to her.”
When Handelman was a teenager, her life changed dramatically from a middling, middle class childhood to a secret life of crime on the fringes of society. “At some point in the early ‘70s, my parents split up– my father became a drug dealer and a player in the sex industry in Los Angeles,” she recalled. “From a very early age, I was working for my dad in various forms and I lived this double life, this middle class suburban existence with my mother and my brother and then living this subversive, outlaw existence with my father.”
As a child, Handelman had loved gothic poetry and monster stories. “I was really into Edgar Allen Poe’s writing and the early 1930’s horror films like Dracula and Frankenstein– they were my sustenance, they just molded me.” But living a secret double life drew her even closer to these characters. “From a very early age I learned the tricks of living underground and keeping secrets and speaking in code,” she recalled.
The so-called “monsters” found in these stories, Handelman reasoned, are representative of society’s intolerance of difference and capture the distinct loneliness of living a secret life. “I realized Irma Vep’s identity as a criminal is something I can relate to,” she explained. “I could connect to her as someone who was brought up in this ’70s outlaw culture.”
Through Irma Vep, the Last Breath, Handelman expanded this outsider archetype in casting Zackary Drucker, a trans-woman, as Irma Vep and Flawless Sabrina, a drag queen, as Musidora. “Looking at where I’m at now and being queer identified, being a part of the queer world and knowing what that’s like– it has its own codes and its own language,” Handelman explained. “Certainly things are easier now, but there’s still a sense of outlaw identity as a queer person living in a heteronormative culture.”
Both actors, she added, “know what it’s like to live undercover.” Drucker, she pointed out, was essentially living undercover as a trans-woman in a male body before transitioning, and Flawless Sabrina “moved around the margins” as a cross-dressing gay man living in Philadelphia in the 1950s.
Of course, Handelman isn’t the first, nor is she the only filmmaker to create an homage to Les Vampires. From Thursday, October 22, through Monday, October 26, 100 Years of Irma Vep will hold court at Anthology and feature a screening of Irma Vep, the Last Breath, a newly restored version of Les Vampires, and get this– a film starring Maggie Cheung playing Maggie Cheung playing Irma Vep in a remake of Les Vampires (convoluted, we know).
While Vep is still an instantly recognizable symbol in France this series of screenings, lectures, and a few other events (see below), will help bring Irma Vep and Musidora into clearer focus for an American audience, a place where both women fully deserve to be.
Screening of all three films, Thursday, Oct. 22 to Monday Oct. 26 at Anthology Film Archives, see full schedule here.
Tuesday, Oct. 27, 6:30 pm, lecture on the work of Musidora at FIT, Pomerantz Building
Tuesday, Nov. 3, 7:30 pm, live reading and limited edition prints at Participant Inc
Tuesday, Nov. 6, 8 pm, live music and film mix at Microscope Gallery