With its rapid cuts, roaming camera, passel of characters (some of them so pitiful they seem always in need of a hug or maybe a swat on the behind), sense that chaos is only a phone call or knock of the door away, and wry subject – the making of an “important” French film – Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep comes across as less an homage to a classic film than an unforgiving examination of what happens when importance triumphs over art and its enjoyment. In Irma Vep, the product is a remake of Louis Feuillade’s 7½-hour serial, Les Vampires (1915). Assayas’ film – a dissection, really – is both a reverent embrace of Feuillade and a witheringly irreverent “left hook” at filmmaking itself.
Maggie Cheung plays the title character, “Maggie Cheung”, who is selected to star as Irma Vep in the film-within-a-film. Her performance recalls some of her memorable roles in such action pictures as Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark’s Shuang long hui (The Twin Dragons, 1992), with Jackie Chan, Ging chat goo si (Police Story, 1985), also with and directed by Chan, and Johnny To’s Dung fong saam hap (The Heroic Trio, 1993). All but lost in this “dog’s breakfast” of production delays, bruised egos and never-ending one-upmanship practiced by everyone from the director to the receptionist, Cheung’s Maggie emerges as the one strong character in the film, and is seemingly immune from the poisonous environment that swirls around her. In her quiet moments, we see her draw on the same reserves she later used to such good effect in Wong Kar-wai’s Fa yeung nin wa (In the Mood for Love, 2000). She captures the essence of the outsider, arriving three days late to play Irma in director René Vidal’s (Jean-Pierre Leaud) remake.
Leaud of course debuted in François Truffaut’s own first feature, Les quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows, 1959). Here, harried and unappreciated, his overly sensitive director unravels emotionally frame by frame as he tries desperately to convince careless actors on the set of the importance of his work. He finds his artistic soul mate in Maggie, the workmanlike actor who will become his Irma. In an essay that accompanies Zeitgeist Films’ 2008 DVD release, Assayas drills to the essence of the creative process as he recounts a moment when Cheung became flustered in a scene that, perhaps, cut too close to the bone. She is confronted with the knowledge that costume designer Zoe (Nathalie Richard) has her eye on Maggie and Cheung stumbles, the way anyone might stumble at such a moment. Assayas writes, “Films achieve meaning in a single stroke. […] I wasn’t filming Maggie Cheung […] but a performer wholly receptive to looking inside herself, deep in her own being, even in her subconscious, for the total truth of a situation, and ready to follow that through into its innermost darkness, into the invisible.” Zoe’s attraction to Maggie might be wasted in another film, but in Assayas’ phantasmagorical portrayal of the inner workings of the filmmaking process, discomfort is always just beneath the surface. Assayas’ cinematographer, Eric Gautier, who also shot Patrice Chéreau’s Ceux qui m’aiment prendront le train (Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train, 1998), Intimacy (2001) and Gabrielle (2005), and more recently, Sean Penn’s Into the Wild (2007), Alain Resnais’ Les herbes folles (Wild Grass, 2008) and Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock (2009), gives discomfort its own visual language, its own reason for being. Gautier knows the difference between voraciousness and intrusion but is never afraid to intrude when that gets the desired image. He also knows the value of swoops and dives, spins and laser-like tracking shots, as well as the sense of lunacy these techniques can create. Near the end of Irma Vep, Gautier locks onto Zoe’s heartbreak when Maggie rejects her invitation to go to a movie. The resulting image is another winning “stroke” in this rich, supple though scattered film.
Shot on 16mm and on a slim budget, Irma Vep has, at times, the feel of a cinéma vérité documentary. Assayas introduces moments from Feuillade’s masterwork as comfortably as the images, in black-and-white, of Maggie stealthily climbing stairs, eyes darting from side-to-side, a catwoman in shiny latex. A scene in a sex shop (where else to buy authentic latex cat suits, right?) with Zoe, Maggie and an assistant is deftly folded into the fabric even as it provides comic (and emotional) relief. And when Zoe takes a drag on her cigarette and lets the smoke come through the eyes and nose of the mask, the moment achieves its own quiet comedic climax. With Cheung’s performance – direct, unsentimental, nuanced – immediately before us for much of the film, Assayas’ Irma Vep is – like Cheung’s title character – a universe of delights. At one point, Vidal intones, “You must respect the silence” as he directs a scene with Maggie. Her creaking, squeaking latex gently breaks this silence repeatedly. Feuillade had his moment. Now it’s Assayas’ turn.
Irma Vep (1996 France 96 mins)
Prod Co: Dacia Films Prod: Georges Benayoun Dir, Scr: Olivier Assayas Phot: Eric Gautier Ed: Luc Barnier Prod Des: Francoise-Renaud Labarthe Mus: Eric Michon
Cast: Maggie Cheung, Jean-Pierre Leaud, Nathalie Richard, Bulle Ogier, Lou Castel, Arsinee Khanjian, Antoine Basler, Nathalie Boutefeu