REVIEW: Irma Vep [1996]

Rating: 8 out of 10.
  • Rating: NR | Runtime: 99 minutes
    Release Date: November 13th, 1996 (France)
    Studio: Haut et Court / Zeitgeist Films
    Director(s): Olivier Assayas
    Writer(s): Olivier Assayas

Have you sex with girls?

If you’re going to poke fun at the film industry, you might as well go for broke. Take Olivier AssayasIrma Vep for example. Hot off the success of his acclaimed Cold Water, he was recruited for a project about foreigners in Paris with Claire Denis and Atom Egoyan. When this attempt at recreating Louis Feuillade‘s silent Les vampires fell through, Assayas decided to continue with that thematic idea while also adding some “meta” behind the scenes chaos that could (and probably did) occur. With a now washed-up, famous auteur (Jean-Pierre Léaud‘s René Vidal) at the helm, Assayas places a caricature of his own frustrated and amused self onscreen. Fast approaching a nervous breakdown, Vidal envisions one actor as his latex-clad, cat-burgling “vampire”: Hong Kong star Maggie Cheung.

Cheung therefore plays a fictionalized version of herself, one with optimism and excitement about coming to Europe for more than fight choreography—a skill she admits isn’t her best when opposite the likes of Michelle Yeoh in Johnnie To‘s The Heroic Trio. But her arrival isn’t a perfect one. Nor should it be when you think about all the moving parts that go into a production. Assayas is more or less intentionally looking for ways to bring Vidal’s enterprise to a screeching halt wherever he can. So he makes Cheung arrive three days late (her Hong Kong picture ran over) when the people meant to receive her (Vidal’s René and Dominique Faysse‘s Maïte) are away. She rolls with the punches, though. It’s as much her fault as theirs.

From there we revel in the insanity, big and small. We laugh as costume designer Zoé (Nathalie Richard) takes Maggie to a sex shop for a latex fitting (Vidal’s aesthetic touchstone for his lead is Michelle Pfeiffer‘s Catwoman). We watch with mouth agape as Zoé and Maïte get into an on-set screaming match augmented by their long-standing history that’s yet to be explained (differently by both women, of course). And prepare ourselves for Vidal to finally blow the gasket it appears he will with every glimpse of footage believed to be subpar. There are giant dinners at friends’ houses, secret meetings between the film’s second lead (Nathalie Boutefeu‘s Laure) and another director (Lou Castel‘s José Mirano), and a harried producer (Alex Descas‘ Desormeaux) with phone glued to ear.

The ride forward is wild with overlapping conversations (Maggie doesn’t speak French and Vidal mumbles his English), an is-it-or-isn’t-it dream, and switches from black and white (Vidal’s film) to color with snippets of Les vampires sprinkled throughout. Cheung is often relegated to stranger in a strange land, silent and still as a French whirlwind spirals about. She always does as told before being asked by others what she’s doing. Everything is running behind schedule, drugs seemingly have a role to play despite only being brought up in the aftermath of use or assumed use, and all the while Cheung is positioned as a pawn at the center—exotic, beautiful, pliable, and armed with little but a disarming smile. She’s here to work, but the circus is in town.

A lot of what occurs is certainly French-cinema specific as Assayas lambasts a system that’s already given him trouble (Cold Water was initially a television project that fell through). He injects a heavily opinionated journalist that calls “prestige” films dead and John Woo our savior and a nationalist artist saying Maggie is wrong for something so “French” as Les vampires because she’s Chinese. It’s not a good look and probably more telling of the system’s problems than mere in-jokes at its expense. Irma Vep is set-up as a cautionary tale at the time for international stars packing up to work within a country more interested in exploiting them than showcasing their craft. After all, the in-film role is hardly César Award caliber. Vidal hired Cheung for her attractiveness.

And her appearance garners intrigue from more than just her director with rumors swirling of a secret tryst that proves to be another form of one character using Maggie to hurt another—the foreigner deemed disposal within a world as destructive as it appears accommodating. But it’s all for art, isn’t it? These interactions are part of a carefully orchestrated tug-of-war to simultaneously assuage too many clashing egos. At first Maggie seeks to be included within the team she’ll be working alongside for weeks if not months, but eventually their true colors come out to give her pause. She’s not here to be a narc or cause trouble and eventually she realizes she cannot even make friends when doing so with certain people automatically alienates her from others.

So we move through different aesthetics, environments, and languages until we’re as turned around and uncertain as Maggie in the center of the turmoil. Characters laugh at each other’s expenses and deride their work all while serving unique roles that only prove they’re nothing more than a cog in a machine. Assayas shows us how remakes are often a dearth of creativity by creatively portraying the personal experience had within that vacuum. He reveals how fickle and opportunistic the industry is, using fame as a means for profit regardless of the quality it may provide. It’s no surprise then that we do get a Les vampires homage by the end with scratched out faces and crude animations for a firm middle finger to glossy rehashes devoid of spirit.

Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.

courtesy of Zeitgeist Films

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