1 January 2021

Olivier Assayas's Irma Vep (1996)


Olivier Asseyas's Irma Vep is a film about a film crew making a remake of Louis Feuillade's silent ten-part classic Les Vampires (1915), with Musidora playing the rooftop jewel thief Irma Vep (an anagram of 'vampire').

The film gives several stabs at the state of the film industry of the time, with the director of the remake being played by Truffaut's iconic Nouvelle Vague actor Jean-Pierre Léaud, here seen as a neurotic, superannuated director (René Vidal) trying to capture back his former glory. He's chosen to have Maggie Cheung (who plays herself playing herself in Assayas's film) as Irma Vep, and it becomes apparent that he's interested in her playing in a skintight black latex suit bought from a sex shop. (Interestingly, Asseyas himself must have been taken by it too, and not so long afterwards he married Cheung, although they separated in 2001.)

The lesbian dress designer Zoé (Nathalie Richard), also a heroin dealer who incidentally is sexually attracted to Maggie, tells her over a meal in a cafeteria that Hollywood is all money and show for very little return. And during an interview Maggie is told by her interviewer (played by Antoine Basier) that René's cinema is passé, as is today's French cinema, which is all about navel-gazing solely designed for intellectuals: in part, no doubt Asseyas agreed with these sentiments.

Although Maggie – speaking no French and the film thus being filled with French and mainly badly spoken English (especially by Léaud) – seems really lost in this insane world, she tries to get into the part, even to the point of stealing jewels from her hotel (in her latex gear) and throwing them into the street from the rooftop: very odd scenes.

René hates the filming and walks out on the first takes, later attacks his wife and has a nervous breakdown. There is no way he can continue the film. It is decided that the director José Murano (played by Lou Castel, who also imitated Rainer Werner Fassbinder in Fassbinder's own Warnung vor einer heiligen Nutte (Beware of a Holy Whore) (1971)) will take René's place, although Murano is adamant that Maggie must go as a Chinese woman playing the lead part in a French remake is ridiculous: he chooses Laure (Nathalie Boutefeu) for the role, and of course a new stuntperson will have to be found.

A crazy, fun film who film lovers who will appreciate the references, and maybe a more important film of Assayas's than some critics have said.

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