Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep is such an unassuming and seductive piece of film making that it’s possible to watch the entire film without realizing that it is a punchy satire on the neutering of French cinema by American pop culturization. Filmed in 16 millimeter and blown up to 35, this brilliant little comedy stars Hong Kong action star and frequent Jackie Chan co-star Maggie Cheung as herself, arriving in Paris – without knowing a word of French – to star in a television remake of Louis Feuillade’s 1915 serial
Les Vampires. Overseeing the project is one-time New Wave wonder Rene Vidal (Jean-Pierre Leaud, evoking memories of Truffaut and Godard) who has no clear idea of how to approach his film. Having seen and fallen in love with Cheung watching
Heroic Trio in a Marrakech cinema, Vidal knows only that to cast a French actress in the lead role of master thief Irma Vep (an anagram of vampire) would be sacrilege of the name of Musidora, the silent actress who made the role famous.
While Vidal struggles with his film, we get to know Cheung and members of the film’s crew, including the likable Zoe (Nathalie Richard), the film’s prop mistress who gets Cheung’s skintight latex cat suit at a sex shop (“A shop for who-kers,” she says) and admits to a friend at a dinner party that she’s sexually attracted to Cheung. We also see the rising tensions between Zoe and the production manager Maite (Dominique Faysse) who has tried to pit Chueng against Zoe, perhaps with good reason.
Vidal tells Cheung that his film is nothing, that his entire conception of Cheung as Vep is an empty idea and that the concept must be redone from an entirely new perspective. Vidal suffers a nervous breakdown, but Cheung, ever the trooper, gets into her role in a big way by slipping into her squeaky cat suit, stealing through the hotel and sneaking into the room of a woman on the phone (played in a wonderfully voyeuristic scene by a naked Arsinee Khanjian, the wife of director Atom Egoyan). Cheung slinks out of her room with a jeweled necklace, makes her way to the hotel’s roof, and tosses the necklace into the rainy courtyard below.
Vidal gets replaced by veteran director Jose Mirano (Lou Castel, in a nod to Fassbinder), who fires Cheung and replaces her with her costar Laure (Nathalie Boutefeu). When we last hear of Maggie, she’s off to America to meet with Ridley Scott. (Cheung’s real-life fate is ironically similar – after Vep she became the companion of writer/director Assayas, and was picked by Steven Spielberg for his upcoming Memoirs of a Geisha.) We have no idea what kind of film Mirano will make (how good could it be when he can’t stay awake watching the original Les Vampires on video?), but at film’s end, we get to see the film Vidal had edited together – a bizarre, avant-garde collage of scratched film and industrial sounds that posit Vidal as either a madman or a visionary.
Perhaps the most telling scene in the film is Cheung’s interview with a young journalist played by Antoine Basler, who chides Cheung for her involvement with Vidal, and who launches in to an anti-intellectual tirade against French cinema, citing it’s elitism and offering John Woo, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean Claude Van Damme as the leaders of a new “exciting” cinema free from the intellectual navel gazing that has ruined the film industry. It’s a hilarious scene that gives the film a nice sting, as do the opening scenes in a production office full of people handling prop guns and wearing Schwarzenegger t shirts. Assayas also gives us some glimpses of what has been lost in French cinema, most notably a political conscious as shown by a dinner party where the guests are watching radical political films of the `60s on videotape.
But this is gentle satire, and one could easily enjoy the film for Cheung’s magnificent performance alone. She’s absolutely genuine, and the scene where Ogier betrays Zoe’s confidence by telling Cheung that Zoe wants to have sex with her is the kind of moment Hollywood builds whole movies around. With a mixture of shock and delight, Cheung’s embarrassed giggle is one of the most real moments I’ve seen on film this decade. To see Maggie Cheung in this remarkable film is to fall in love with her.