Reviewed by Lee Broughton
Adopting the same career path that most of the original French New Wave directors traversed, writer-director Olivier Assayas wrote for the journal Cahiers du Cinema before making the jump to feature film directing in 1986. And, like a number of French film directors before him, Assayas went on to develop a special relationship with one of his leading ladies: he was married to Irma Vep's star Maggie Cheung in 1998. It's perhaps not too surprising to discover that some sections of this bitingly satirical film about French filmmaking appear to be mini-discourses that are specifically concerned with critiquing aspects of French cinema culture itself.
Aging film director Rene Vidal (Jean-Pierre Leaud) is working on a remake of Louis Feuillade's Les Vampires but he remains unhappy with the way the project is unfolding. Rene has cast Hong Kong action film heroine Maggie Cheung (Maggie Cheung) as the character Irma Vep and he has become obsessed with capturing the perfect take of her prowling the corridors of a gothic mansion in her latex cat-suit. With the shoot running behind schedule, stress takes its toll and Rene suffers a mental breakdown. Alas, he isn't the only person being affected by the strange intensity of his filming methods: Cheung has taken to donning her Irma Vep outfit and prowling the corridors of her Parisian hotel late at night.
Rene Vidal is supposed to be an aging French New Wave film director. Cast as an all powerful auteur figure, nobody has the guts to tell him that he may have misjudged his decision to remake Les Vampires. Enigmatic and pretentious in equal measure, Rene is prone to using indecipherable metaphors when he tries to communicate his needs and ideas to his cast and crew. They just sycophantically smile and nod their heads in affirmation, even when they don't entirely understand what he's talking about. Having seen Maggie Cheung in Johnny To's The Heroic Trio, Rene has seemingly developed a fetishistic need to film Cheung performing the role of Irma Vep. His apparent inability to grasp that Cheung's most physically impressive scenes in To's film were produced by a mixture of special effects and stunt work seems to be a comment on French art cinema's traditional reliance on naturalistic working methods. Jean-Pierre Leaud (The 400 Blows) is well cast as the eccentric director and he communicates feelings of artistic failure and frustration perfectly when Rene hosts a tense screening of the film's rushes.
There's good work from the film's two female leads, too. Maggie Cheung is really quite delightful as herself. A non-French speaker, she looks genuinely lost and culturally adrift when she finds herself caught in the middle of French-only conversations but she works hard at remaining affable and happy in the company of her hosts. Most of them do speak some English, which results in the show featuring a lively mix of subtitled French dialogue and heavily accented English dialogue. Maggie falls in love with her skintight latex costume and takes to roaming around her hotel's corridors in it late at night, Irma Vep-style. At one point she sneaks into an American woman's (Arsinee Khanjian) room and voyeuristically watches her taking a telephone call in the nude before making off with a discarded necklace. Next she prowls the hotel's rooftop in the pouring rain. These scenes suggest that, just like Rene in the film, Assayas in real life could have easily lost himself in the act of shooting take after take of Cheung in her Irma Vep outfit. The costume itself actually presents an excuse for some discourse about the cinema: Maggie and Zoe trash Hollywood's Batman films before realizing that Rene's initial conceptual design for the cat-suit was obviously inspired by Catwoman's outfit. Nathalie Richard plays Zoe. Zoe is Rene's film's costume designer and she winds up becoming a kind of unofficial personal assistant to Maggie. A slightly unstable character, Zoe is a lesbian and the scenarios that are provoked when she develops a crush on Maggie are really well acted and played out.
Assayas alternates between a number of different but highly effective shooting and editing styles here. The film's most striking sequences involve Assayas's repeated use of long, roaming single-take shots that smoothly work around and take in a succession of expertly choreographed characters. The film opens with one such shot that weaves around Rene's chaotic production office, observing a number of key personnel whose conversations give some insight into the complicated business side of filmmaking in France. Later on, a similar single take shot is put to good use when the film crew are observed hurriedly leaving a film lab and taking off in their respective vehicles. As the camera deftly pans and probes, the car park grows progressively emptier until we're suddenly confronted with a disorientated Maggie, who has belatedly emerged from the building's entrance and realized that she has been left stranded. Zoe comes to her rescue and takes her to a dinner party. It's here that a loose-tongued friend reveals to Maggie that Zoe has a crush on her. A number of sequences in the film have an improvisational quality about them and Assayas also slips in some particularly documentary-like scenes that sometimes seemingly feature non-professionals (Maggie interacting with her hotel's staff, etc). The film also features plenty of location work in environments that regularly appear in French art house films (cafe bars, the metro underground, etc, etc). Most of the music used here appears to be sourced from pre-existing rock and pop songs but it works pretty well.
Another interesting aspect of the film is the variety of filmic textures that Assayas is able to employ. Well-worn clips from Feuillade's original Les Vampires are used to remind us of the silent film era aesthetic that Rene is striving to reproduce with his remake. We can compare the two when Rene's rushes are shown during a group screening at the film lab. Assayas also presents shots from Johnny To's The Heroic Trio, which are seen in a rather fuzzy video form shot directly from Rene's television screen. At the dinner party Zoe takes Maggie to, one of Chris Marker's black and white Groupe Medvedkine political films is shown playing on a television screen too, which sparks another debate about another chapter in France's filmmaking history. Later in the film, Maggie is seen being interviewed on the set of Rene's film and her responses are initially played to us via her interviewer's video camera monitor. Another debate about French film ensues when the interviewer privileges Jackie Chan, John Woo and Arnold Schwarzenegger's movies over French art house films and criticizes French art house directors for using state funds to make elitist films that only play to a small minority of citizens.
With Rene out of the picture, an old friend and fellow director who has fallen on hard times, Jose Murano (Lou Castel, Kill and Pray, Matalo!), is called upon to salvage the film. Unable to understand why Rene would cast a foreign actress as Irma Vep, the show ends with a somewhat surprised Jose viewing the crazed montage of manipulated shots that Rene managed to edit together before leaving the project. Irma Vep is a fairly unusual and, at times, slightly disorientating film that simultaneously manages to project a generally bright and light-hearted ambience. Assayas's clever use of Maggie Cheung partially removes the cinematic wall that stands between our own exterior sense of reality and the film's own diegetic representation of reality. That exercise in itself perhaps indicates that Irma Vep is really just as knowing and just as arty as the films and filmmakers that it seemingly seeks to critique and satirize. I guess the big difference is that Irma Vep remains an accessible film that will appeal to both Maggie Cheung fans and art house cinema buffs alike. And it seems that that is the essence of the filmic argument that Assayas has entered into here: just because a director sets out to make a film that is artistically worthy, it doesn't necessarily follow that the film has to be inaccessible to the public at large.
Irma Vep enjoys a pretty good presentation here. The show's picture quality is slightly grainy in a number of scenes but this appears to have been an intentional element of the film's aesthetic design, given the documentary-like nature of the shoot, the use of hand-held cameras in real locations, etc, etc. The sound quality is near enough excellent, too, if we again allow for the documentary-like nature of some of the proceedings.
The extra features sport two double interviews that were shot in 2003: Maggie Cheung and Nathalie Richard are interviewed together as are Olivier Assayas and his Cahiers du Cinema chum Charles Tesson. The pair produced a special edition of Cahiers du Cinema that was dedicated to Asian cinema and Assayas reveals that it was seeing Maggie Cheung in Johnny To's The Heroic Trio that made him want to work with the actress. Man Yuk - Portrait of Maggie Cheung is an avant-garde short while the Maggie Cheung Rushes consist of silent, black & white shots of Maggie wandering around Parisian rooftops in her Irma Vep costume.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Irma Vep rates:
Movie: Good ++
Video: Excellent -
Sound: Excellent -
Supplements: Interviews with Maggie Cheung, Nathalie Richard, Olivier Assayas & Charles Tesson, trailer, Man Yuk - Portrait of Maggie Cheung and Maggie Cheung Rushes.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 30, 2008
Text © Copyright 2008 Lee Broughton
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2008 Glenn Erickson
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