1996, NR, 96 min. Directed by Olivier Assayas. Starring Maggie Cheung, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Nathalie Richard, Bulle Ogier, Lou Castel, Dominique Faysse.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Aug. 1, 1997
Bizarre and beautiful, this French take on the madness inherent in independent filmmaking rivals Tom DiCillo's Living in Oblivion as the most realistic depiction of the myriad trials and tribulations that accompany the creation of a new film. Irma Vep is also Hong Kong superstar Cheung's first film in two years (as well as her first foray into the international market) and she's luminously erotic here: reed-thin, encased in a shiny black latex catsuit, and possessed of a hitherto-unheard command of the English language. (She was raised in Kent, though this may come as a surprise to her longtime fans who know her only by her HK oeuvre.) Cheung, who plays herself, is called to Paris by the fictional Rene Vidal (Léaud), an embittered, confused director with the semi-salable idea of remaking Louis Feuillade's masterpiece of French silent cinema, the fantasy serial Les Vampires. Having seen Cheung in The Heroic Trio, of all things, he decides then and there that she is perfect for the part of Irma Vep (the name is an anagram), the mysterious leader of a group of high-profile cat burglars in turn-of-the-century Paris. Arriving in the City of Lights, the easygoing, enthusiastic actress finds herself embroiled in a series of behind-the-scenes dramas: The lesbian costumer (Richard) is infatuated with her; the director is inscrutable and nearing emotional collapse; and the production, such as it is, is behind schedule and rapidly degenerating. Entranced by her part as Irma Vep, Cheung goes along with the barely controlled lunacy around her, briefly succumbing to it in a fit of late-night hotel thievery, and gives the production her all, though it's not long before the production disintegrates entirely. Assayas' film recalls the glory days of the French New Wave in its camerawork and editing, which jump between fluid tracking shots and jerky, hand-held episodes. His story smacks of improvisational techniques in which the players are wound up and let loose to run on about nothing much in particular. Amazingly, the center holds, and Irma Vep ends up a knowing, and fairly lucid, portrait of the filmmaking experience, warts and all. One hilarious scene has Cheung being interviewed by a young man who repeatedly belittles his nation's cinematic prowess, prattling on and on about how audiences are far more interested in the "ballet of ultra-violence"; of John Woo and directors such as Arnold Schwarzenegger. Cheung, hard-pressed to get a word in edgewise, refutes his claims, and the scene is one of the most telling moments in modern French movies. At least we know where Assayas stands.