The Vamp as we know her, the woman of loose morals who drains men of their very virility, emerged in the 20th century through two notable actresses of the silent era: Theda Bara and Musidora (born Jeanne Roques). Bara was nicknamed “The Vamp” in English-speaking countries, while Musidora rose to fame in her native France playing Irma Vep (an anagram of “vampire”), a cabaret singer-cum-thief in Louis Feuillade’s serial film series Les Vampires, which celebrates its centennial anniversary this year.
The series was a sensation, running in ten installments, altogether over 7-hours of footage. Musidora continued to work with Feuillade in his next cinematic series, Judex, whose release was delayed by the outbreak of World War I. Musidora’s star rose high at this time. Her male co-stars were called to the front, and she became the de facto public face for these popular works, also spending time on the front to provide moral support.
In the 20s, she directed several films of her own. All but two are considered lost, and that pair is preserved in one archive and have yet to be remastered for the public. Like so many stars of the silent era, the transition to talkies proved impossible to navigate for Musidora as an actress. As a female director, funding was hard to come by (especially as another war loomed, then consumed the continent), and yet she continued to write and direct as best she could, releasing her final film in 1950, La Magique Image, an homage to Feuillade. She sustained herself working as a ticket taker at the Cinematheque Francaise until she passed away in 1957.
That was the woman in a few words, but we also need to address the Vamp, a figure now so commonplace in society that we accept it as just another form of empowered femininity. Not that long ago, this was far from the truth. Even the artists had to explain The Vamp’s presence as cautionary, not enviable. Whereas the femme fatale of noir uses her cunning and guile to manipulate men (who are always more physically powerful than her), Irma Vep’s vamp has her own physical strength and will, which also allows her to actually fall in love and be hurt. She’s actually less sociopathic, more human…and yet still cartoonish to contemporary audiences, who will see in the hijinks and costumes—body tight with skeins of sheer black chiffon for wings—another modern force at work: camp.
Western culture—particularly our culture of slick imagery, buff superhero blockbusters and latex wrapped pop singers—is high-camp and high-vamp, a constant rush of imagery designed to imply empowerment while belying stricture, a constant performance, contrived and insincere. That we are aware of the contrivance is what makes it camp versus pure deceit…but the line is thin, and the inability to reconcile authentic desire with what must be performed leads to joyless pleasure, fatalism and a constant crisis of identity.
It is this among other things that is examined in “Irma Vep, The Last Breath,” the film installation now on display at The Henry. Filmmaker Michelle Handelman has employed all the slick tricks at her disposal to take the personae of Irma Vep and Musidora and bring them into our own age, illuminating the fragility of the artificial and giving the fragile reality beneath it—however homely—a soulful beauty of its own.
Handelman cast transgender artist and performer Zackary Drucker as Irma Vep, looking so pretty it hurts in an updated version of the original, iconic catsuit and high-concept makeup (dagger-like, false lashes, vivid powder around the brows and cheeks, downcast eyes painted on the lids). Drucker spends a lot of time looking directly at the camera, projecting confidence on the verge of cracking. This Vep is young and already disillusioned, willing to trot out fatalistic remarks about her own nature and that of those around her. The spare dialog is framed as a therapy session, tinged with a little of the interview from Fatal Attraction, a camp masterclass in its own right. Vep waxes poetic/nihilistic about the soul’s similarity to dark matter (pervasive yet unknowable, forever misunderstood) and the self-fulfilling prophecy of entering into relationships that she knows are doomed to undo her. I have no problem with this characterization, but I do cringe at the therapist/interviewer’s questions, which are simply not believable, posed for the sake of the answer that Handelman is ready to put in Vep’s mouth. This could have been done better, even in the context of camp.
Fortunately, the overall effect is primarily aesthetic and able to overcome this quibble. You could mute all the dialog and still get a strong sense of what was happening based on the strong sound design and (above all) the sharp, smart editing. Editing is the key to film, and it has come a long way since Feuillade. Handelman ups the ante by making the film multifacted and immersive in the space: Four screens project simultaneously, angled such that the viewer is wrapped in the images. The panels on the far left and right tend to be mirror images (though at key moments, they flip vertically, too), while the center two panels complement each other with juxtapositions, reflections, quick cuts, every trick available to evoke a universe within a compressed time and space.
The compression of time is real for the characters, too, as Musidora enters. Played by drag icon Mother Flawless Sabrina (Jack Doroshow, now 75 years old and a veteran of Warhol’s Factory days), the aged Musidora resides in a casket-like ticket booth. This structure’s sharp, metallic surface shines dimly in a black void. Within, it is cramped and squalorous with paraphernalia of the glory days. Musidora languishes in it, lying amidst the refuse, reading books and huffing from an oxygen tank (especially as the casket fills with smoke, which creates some of the most striking imagery of the film, outside of Drucker’s glam posing on an ultra-mod couch). The lighting, editing, and sound design are all masterful. In terms of production values, it’s in the same league as the slicket music video, but unlike so much pop produce, it does not throw everything but the kitchen sink at the viewer. (Ahem, Gaga, ahem.) It is not a regurgitation of the overstimulated world around us, but a controlled and cohesive universe of its own.
It’s worth noting that this is a markedly queer universe. The transgressive sexuality of vamp’s and femme fatales have been praised and adopted by queer aesthetes, in no small part because being queer is itself a transgressive sexuality, even criminal in some parts of the world (including America, until recently). Also worth noting is how far these aesthetics stray from that of the most famous queer thief, Jean Genet, who made a sacrament of squalor and thieving itself. In “The Last Breath,” Vep admits to remorse over the act of stealing, noting that her actions have painful consequences for others, but in the moment she feels the rush of taking the power of others for herself, to make off with their essence (to paraphrase a remark by Marquis de Sade). Genet and Vep occupy two very different asthetics, both queer. Whereas Genet embraces imprisonment, filth, humiliation and theft as means of apotheosis, Vep occupies a mostly sterilized void, wherein she admits “Power is an illusion.” This is true, particularly when one’s life is built upon a series of illusions and performances with no bottom. Even the sterility of the space is an illusion. (Did we just see a smattering of soil on that pristine couch? You will if you turn your head to the left at the right moment.)
The fragility of Vep the young vamp continues to break down when she encounters her future, the humbled but majestically human Musidora in her tiny capsule. The antagonism between these two selves (ostensibly the same self) requires no dialog. You get to see the literal vamp emerge instead. These moments ensure that all the posturing of Vep—alluring as it may be—does not become pure vanity for the audience. The emphasis on youth over wisdom, the fear of what we will become over what we can become (that pernicious fatalism) are all major parts of our image culture, and camp does nothing to allay them.
In light of the real Musidora’s inability to transition her career into the age of talkies, it is almost fitting that the dialog be the weakest element of the film, but as a filmed experience, it is about as flawless as Sabrina herself, who gets the last “pop” in a heart-aching final zoom. The final intelligible word, however, is Vep pronouncing simply that she knows, “I am Irma Vep,” but whether she knows what that means or not is another story.
They say that vampires are immortal, and Handelman has deftly given Irma Vep and the woman behind her a new life, true to an age so shaped by the advent of film and its early stars, but quick to forget. “Irma Vep: The Last Breath,” however, is not something you will easily get out of your head.
“Irma Vep: The Last Breath” is playing in the upper galleries at Henry Art Gallery through October 11. Watch a preview online.