Irma Vep (Cert 15)
1 Disc Blu-ray (Distributor: Arrow Academy) Running Time: 99 minutes approx.
Among the pantheon of instances of life imitating art and art imitating life, this 1996 film from French director Olivier Assayas is possibly the most meta of them all, for the central plot is rumoured to have been the very reason this film was ever made, with the end goal (temporarily) being reached by the director.
Irma Vep (an anagram of “vampire”) is the main character of Les Vampires, the silent French serial from 1915, that once-esteemed arthouse director René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud) decides to remake. For reasons that only make sense to him, Vidal has cast Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung in the lead role, a move even she is baffled by as she speaks no French and has limited exposure to French cinema.
Regardless Cheung (playing herself) accepts the role, joining a chaotic Paris based shoot with a director heading for a breakdown who has secret designs on her, lesbian costume designer Zoe (Nathalie Richard) who also wants to sleep with her and a stressed out crew believing French cinema is moribund – not the most idyllic conditions for making a film.
Watching Irma Vep is quite a beguiling experience, from its ironic lament of the state of French cinema to the conceit of the main story which threatens to collapse in on itself with the fraying of the edges between reality and fiction. It’s not just a film about a film; it’s a film about a film about a film that also satirises the sort of film that is being made by being the sort of film it is satirising.
Confused? Well, let’s start with the central plot – as alluded to above, the main premise is reportedly not as innocent as it sounds. Vidal hires Cheung because he is besotted with her and by bringing her to France under the pretence of playing Irma Vep, he gets to meet his crush, surreptitiously fulfilling a fantasy by having dress up in her character’s tight latex cat suit, which is supposedly the real reason Olivier Assayas made this film – so he could woo Maggie Cheung!
It worked as they married in 1998 but divorced in 2001, remaining civil enough to work together on 2004’s award winning Clean. In Irma Vep Cheung is playing herself playing herself – in other words she is playing Maggie Cheung the actress in the role of Maggie Cheung the bemused fish out of water from Hong Kong on a Paris film shoot which essentially requires very little acting – except for when she is acting.
Trust me it makes sense when you watch it. Assayas naturally opted for a cinema vérité style for this shoot to complete the illusion of authenticity, achieved through the busy and intrusive handheld camerawork, and unaffected performances from the cast. The 2K print on this Blu-ray release is quite grainy, maybe deliberate in buttressing the notion of this being a fly-on-the-wall presentation, adding grittiness to the hectic atmosphere.
Maggie Cheung, ever the professional, is compliant, obliging, and invested in delivering the best performance she can despite not understanding what Vidal wants from her. She takes everything in her stride, seeing it as a learning curve and something fresh after working in Hong Kong, although the cultural differences as well as not speaking French mean not everything is so smooth.
Dialogue between Cheung and the French crew is in English, unfortunately not subtitled for hard of hearing folk or anyone troubled by accents; Cheung’s English is very good and largely clear enough but the French cast are hampered by their thick accents, with Jean-Pierre Léaud being the worst offender, sounding like a caricature in his pompous delivery.
Essentially Vidal’s character is a caricature of a temperamental arthouse director which presumably was what Assayas was going for. The irony of bemoaning French cinema in the 1990’s as no more than fodder the intellectual market in a film with little commercial cache is not lost; conversely, mainstream and Hollywood films fare no better, accused of throwing too much money at them and forgetting the substance.
But was Assayas spitting in the face of his peers and forefathers or genuinely concerned for the future of French cinema? There has been a noticeable shift away from niche films from France since the millennium so maybe Assayas did hit a nerve – the final scene in which we see the first edit of Vidal’s of the footage shot with Cheung is a stinging yet ambiguous parting shot to separate the pseuds from the unaffected.
This is unabashedly a “typical” French film that will hold little appeal for those who don’t like French films – heavy on frenetically delivered verbose dialogue, tortured characters and flights of obtuse reverie; of course, that is Assayas’ whole point but it’s one not all audiences will get it so it befalls to Maggie Cheung to give the unsure in the audience something to latch onto as a relatable and empathetic figure.
Cheung’s amiable performance effortlessly conveys the straddling of the two conflicting worlds she finds herself, in front of and behind the camera. Immersing herself in the title role as snugly as the latex costume clings to her gamine figure, Cheung provides dual layer fan service via this image whilst enthralling as an enigmatic presence in replicating the actions of Musidora from 80 years earlier.
Whether the satirical intent comes across as too strong in pricking the egos of the pretentious artistic elite, or too damning in its portrayal of filmmaking as a fraught and disorganised process, Assayas avoids being too negative towards his chosen profession as his attention to detail is clearly a product of his studious dedication to his craft.
Even after 22 years Irma Vep remains a bold, curiosity of a film regardless of which side of the fence you stand – it’s either a post-modern work of genius or oblique, self-indulgent tosh – but it’s as honest and heartfelt a tribute to cinema as it is a cynical dissertation on it.
Audio Commentary by Olivier Assayas & Jean-Michel Frodon
On The Set of Irma Vep (w/ optional commentary)
Interview with Olivier Assayas & Charles Tesso
Interview with Maggie Cheung & Nathalie Richard
Man yuk – A Portrait of Maggie Cheung
Black & White Rushes
Reversible sleeve featuring theatrical poster art and original artwork
First Pressing only: Illustrated Collector’s Booklet
Rating – ***
Man In Black