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Olivier Assayas' Irma Vep disappointed the people I saw it with. The poster showing Maggie Cheung in a black leather costume was enough to get us all interested, but the film turned out not to be a comic strip movie, or even an action picture. It's instead a portrait of Parisian filmmaking at a specific time and place. Francois Truffaut's Day for Night followed a film crew trying to shoot a romantic picture under trying circumstances. Assayas' picture is about the fragments of French filmmaking still remaining, and the filmmakers' attitude to their own heritage. A company comes together to shoot a remake of a pre-WW1 French serial called Les Vampires, a surrealist classic by Louis Feuillade. The idea sounds great, as one of the main characters in the story is Irma Vep, a music hall performer who becomes a nefarious night stalker in black leotards. "The Vampires" are a band of ninja-like assassins that prowl the rooftops of Paris. But is 1915 movie a good choice for a 1990s production?
A 1998 release had an inferior non-enhanced presentation; the new Irma Vep Essential Edition is a beautiful re-do, with strong audio and some interesting extras.
Movies about making movies are usually not very accurate. Minnelli's The Bad and the Beautiful dishes dirt about actors and writers but makes its producer into a hero, and doesn't even show the exalted studio heads. American-International made How to Make a Monster, a fantasy about their studio back lot, even though A.I.P. didn't have its own physical studio. In Irma Vep we see a small film outfit in Paris that apparently forms up only when its director-auteur has a new project. Director René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is in a slump after some big early hits. He's become excited by a Les Vampires remake, starring Hong Kong beauty Maggie Cheung as Irma Vep. Unfortunately, that's as far as he takes the idea. Everyone agrees that Cheung in black tights is a great visual but Vidal's only idea is to shoot the 80 year-old Feuillade serial scene for scene.
Vidal's busy film office expects Cheung to be a problem. When she arrives it's clear that she's the most open-minded, practical and flexible person on the show. The top assistants are afraid to ruffle Vidal's feathers, as he's both moody and arbitrary. Other actors just don't "get" what Vidal wants -- he keeps asking them to tone down their performances and stop showing emotion. Something's not working.
We follow Cheung as she's fitted for her cat suit and meets some of the crew. The adventurous costume designer Zoé (Nathalie Richard) has been given a reference picture of Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman in Tim Burton's Batman Returns. The director hasn't communicated much about the character of Irma Vep -- which may be pronounced "Wep", by the way. Zoé simply takes Maggie Cheung to a sex shoppe to fit her for a vinyl suit and mask that won't require much alteration. Cheung cautions Vidal not to be fooled by the Chinese video clips of her doing fancy stunts and wielding dangerous weapons -- scenes filmed with special effects and stunt doubles.
The film falls apart almost before it's begun. Vidal loses his patience on the set and hates the first day's dailies. A violent argument with his wife precipitates a nervous breakdown. Maggie is left behind after the flop screening. She rides home with Zoé, to an interesting dinner scene, where various film people dismiss the whole Les Vampires concept as irrelevant. As it turns out, Zoé is attracted to Maggie, a fact that is directly communicated to the Chinese actress by a nosy friend, Mireile (Bulle Ogier). Zoé is humiliated.
Returning to her hotel in the early morning hours, Maggie decides to investigate the black tights mystique for herself. She creeps around the hotel corridors hiding from guests, and climbs out onto the roof. When she returns to her room she falls asleep still in the suit, and misses her morning call.
Filming continues for a day with another Vampire-actress scooting across the rooftops, looking rather unsure of her footing. Nobody seems to realize that Feuillade probably used circus pros climbing on specially prepared sets. An annoying journalist interviews Maggie. He dismisses her opinions and tries to get her to parrot his own biased interpretation of director René Vidal. The production manager spreads malicious gossip about Zoé and tries to get Maggie to say that Zoé seduced her or sold her drugs. The movie falls apart in a matter of minutes.
A new director (Lou Castel) takes over the production. He has a strong idea of what to do, and his first decision is to eliminate Maggie Cheung from the cast: "Irma Vep should be a French girl from the working class!" The producers make a lame attempt to apologize to Maggie, but she's already gotten the message and taken off for New York. When the new director evaluates the dailies already filmed, the images of Maggie on screen are transformed into an abstract painting-on-film exercise. We get a final burst of excitement with the erotic fantasy image that inspired the movie in the first place.
Irma Vep is an eccentric movie with unusual qualities. Assayas' direction is loose, but not Dogme 95- loose. I believe the actors and enjoy the fractured relationships and anxieties among the crew, especially Nathalie Richard's rather adorable costumer. We get an idea of what it might be like to work in Paris, commuting by motor scooter. It's also ingratiating to see a serious film about a movie set that's not working. Everyone's going through the motions but the director hasn't communicated how people are to move or what kind of world he is trying to convey. The truth is that he doesn't know what he wants. Crews intuit this sort of thing FAST and when they do the result is not good. Some crew people try hard while others daydream, just hoping they'll be paid.
Assayas' abstract conclusion also hit me in the right way. His story is finished and he just wants us to think about it for a moment before moving on. "Doodles" and scratches animate onto the film, as if the director is playing with Maggie's image, trying to isolate its exact appeal. Interestingly, "director Vidal" shouldn't have given up so quickly. The marvelous Georges Franju remade a Feuillade serial called Judex back in 1963. He honored the feel and pace of the 1916 original with a full hommage, adding his own Cocteau-like splashes of surrealism.
Zeitgeist's DVD of Irma Vep Essential Edition looks fine in a clean, bright enhanced image with great color and clear sound. The soundtrack features some good tunes by Sonic Youth and Luna; a song about Bonnie & Clyde appears over the end credits.
The extras are not at all bad. Director Assayas gives us a commentary aided by critic Jean-Michael Frodon. More of their thoughts appear on a track behind a lengthy selection of BTS footage from the film's sets. Assayas' uncut B&W footage of the film-within-a-film appears as another extra. Finally we see Assayas' short Man Yuk: A Portrait of Maggie Cheung a 1997 film done on a grant. It's a fairly insubstantial fragment.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Irma Vep Essential Edition rates:
Sound: Excellent Stereo
Supplements: Commentary, outtakes, short film, B&W rushes, trailer, 20-page booklet.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 24, 2008
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