Irma Vep was born fully formed in 1915, a woman who was never a girl, a gangster whose name was an anagram for "vampire," and a popular enigma whose mouth had two meanings: Lips closed, she had a secret; mouth wide, she was ready to suck the life out of everything. She terrorized the upper class.
Wearing a black bodysuit, Irma Vep was shifty and slippery, infiltrating upstanding drawing rooms to plot robberies and murders. In an era when proper women wouldn't be caught dead acting or writing, Irma Vep—the vamp—was a perfect representative character for Musidora, the woman who played her. As a writer, dancer, journalist, actor of stage and screen, director, and producer, Musidora wielded a degree of control in her life and work that is still rare for a woman now, a hundred years later. If Irma Vep/Musidora shifted and slipped, she did it for herself (her selves), to live more freely, and she started early, as a teenager.
When Michelle Handelman was a teenager, she had a poster of the dark-eyed Irma Vep in her middle-class suburban bedroom. But there were holes leading to unfamiliar places in the walls and floors of the house. Handelman always said she wouldn't talk about it until her parents were gone, but recently she's decided to share that after her parents' divorce when she was 9, her father became a drug dealer and the operator of an underground "massage parlor."
Growing up in a criminal household, Handelman dealt drugs young and learned to hide what was considered unacceptable even while gaining intimate knowledge that would have made the line between right and wrong more blurry. She had plenty of reasons to love Irma Vep, whose aesthetic was a mix of German expressionism, horror, and the Gothic. Eventually, Handelman would make her own films, about portraits that instigate murder (Dorian, A Cinematic Perfume, based on Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray), about leather-dyke culture in San Francisco (Blood Sisters, which played in Seattle in the 1990s). And now, she's made one about Irma Vep.
Irma Vep, The Last Breath (2013) is playing at the Henry Art Gallery, where you sit on a glowing bench wrapped by a curving row of four screens. It's a tense experience that slowly corsets you as it proceeds. Do you like to be dominated? It is not all pleasure. It's not real, either—it's plainly a campy, vampy illusion—but it does leave marks that stick at least for a while, like bruises from a thrashy nightmare.
Epic windshield eyelashes and the catsuit: This is Irma Vep, 100 years on. She has a therapist who says things like "Why are you so aggressive today?" There are two Irma Veps of today, actually: one who's wounded and hissing, the other who's wounded and feeling "really defeated about relationships."
The dialogue (with the therapist offscreen) is mostly improvised by the artist who plays Irma Vep, Zackary Drucker. Drucker is a trans woman, bringing to the role a particular knowledge of living undercover, and maybe inevitably the performance feels at least somewhat confessional. Drucker spans all kinds of contemporary divides. She circulates not only in fine art, where her work was included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, but also in television, as an actor on and associate producer of Amazon's Transparent.
Is Drucker's Irma Vep a woman? Was Musidora's? She's more an imagined gender, an unstable outlaw of a gender. Given the premise that Irma Vep is ultimately defined as a disruption to the social order, it would be interesting to see how a black artist would adapt the way Irma Vep has continuously, here included, been constructed by fetishized shadows and all-black bodysuits.
About the underworld, Handelman's Irma Veps are ambivalent. Hissing Irma is above it all, talking to her therapist about pursuing revolution, embodying an undefinable identity and redistributing the wealth of the greedy. (This Irma might have been assigned a therapist by a judge.) But then there's lonely Irma, seeking help of her own accord. "Suddenly, I was gassing people," she says softly, horrified. Crime might be more like sadism than heroism, and it's hard forming healthy relationships between people living in the shadows, she adds. Hearing that, I hear the trauma and complexity of queerness echoing through time in art and popular culture, from Oscar Wilde to AIDS to Brandon Teena and Caitlyn Jenner.
You'll want to smack hissing Irma, and hug lonely Irma. In Irma Vep, The Last Breath, there is a soft world and a hard one, and neither can prevail the way Handelman edited the footage. It's not linear or chronological. Irma doesn't resolve. Handelman is not young, or didactic.
An older blonde is played by New York drag icon Flawless Sabrina, who sits inside a gleaming, casket-shaped ticket booth—waiting. This is where the tension of the film comes from. She's waiting in the casket-booth, which is suspended in a black void like a spaceship, and its interior is decorated with Irma Vep posters and old detritus. She's got an oxygen mask; she only has so much time.
When the young femme fatale finally comes, Flawless Sabrina gives her a ticket to admit one, and you think no, no, no. Irma Vep pays with a giant, terrible diamond. Then the booth fills with smoke, and Irma Vep is inside with Flawless Sabrina, ravishing her older double, biting into her and licking hungrily as the blood rolls down her pretty young chin.
If you know nothing of Handelman's early double lives, or of the invention of Irma Vep in the silent films of 1915 and her rise as a feminist icon after Musidora's death in 1957, still you can feel in Irma Vep the manifestation of the dominatrix. She's on-screen, and she's behind the camera. Her slick, gorgeous imagery flashing between the four screens literally jerks you around. She doesn't care whether art is art or movies. She's made an action thriller. Plunder is erotic, and power is miserable, glamorous, and false but real and scary.
For me there were a few moments when the camp became cheese, and I regretted and resented them. I was so enjoying the illusion of Handelman's whip. I also preferred the fresh and particular contemporary contributions Handelman, Drucker, and Flawless Sabrina added, over the repeated reconstructions of the early French symbolism from the (admittedly beautiful) silent films where Irma was born.
"How does it feel to be a criminal in a moral world?" Handelman's Irma Vep asks arrogantly, presuming what her therapist really wants to know in the tone of an impatient teenager waiting for the announcement of her punishment. There are so many forms of criminality in the underworld and overworld alike. Musidora understood this. At the end of her life, she was known to sit in the booth taking tickets at the cinema where she had once lit up the screen. She would not be recognized. Every night she performed a silent escape from the cruel world of the greedy, the young, and the glamorous, right beneath their noses.