Olivier Assayas/ France/ 1996/ 97 mins
Available on Blu-ray Mon 7 May 2018
Cinema has never been averse to naval-gazing. Filmmakers have often turned their cameras on the process of crafting a movie, and the deconstruction of a piece of art into the myriad atomic-scale triumphs and catastrophes of which its comprised can be compelling. The perpetually curious filmmaker Olivier Assayas, inspired by works like Truffaut‘s Day for Night and Fassbinder‘s Beware of a Holy Whore, peers a scabrous eye at various French cinematic milestones in a broad satire that meets its targets with a carpet-bomb scatter rather than a sniper’s precision.
Washed-up French New Wave cinema veteran René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is attempting to film a remake of Louis Feuillade‘s legendary silent serial Les vampires. After deciding that Hong Kong action star Maggie Cheung (playing herself) would be perfect to take the role of the cat-burglar heroine Irma Vep, the bemused star finds herself amidst the chaos of a film shoot in an unfamiliar country, surrounded by egos clashing in a language she doesn’t understand.
Irma Vep‘s loose, lurching narrative hurtles through three hectic days, pin-balling through subtexts and cinematic references in a way that’s distinctly uneven but always entertaining. It was shot on grainy stock in a zippy three weeks, and there’s an intensely naturalistic feel that comes across like a postmodern Gallic take on Mike Leigh‘s work-shopped improvisational style. As such, the playfulness works thanks to the sheen of authenticity in its temperamental characters. Central to this is the beguiling Cheung, the unfailingly polite beacon of sanity. However, even she gives in to the madness eventually, in a cult-favourite scene in which she apparently succumbs to her character and slinks through a hotel out-of-hours, clad in her PVC costume, pausing to steal some jewels from a stranded (and gratuitously naked) American tourist.
There’s a lot to unpick in Irma Vep. For all it isn’t taking itself too seriously, a fair knowledge of the history of cinema is beneficial. The casting of Léaud is a knowing nod back to the days of of the New Wave; the star of The 400 Blows and Stolen Kisses representing the stultified remnants of the French art-house, at the moment when the likes of Besson, Jeunet, Ozon and Kassovitz were embracing the style and punch of American genre. Conversely, this new populism is also gently mocked through the reporter who keeps interrupting and exasperated Chung with his aggressive fondness for John Woo.
Irma Vep is occasionally a victim of its own jittery, magpie tendencies, forever distracted by the next shiny cinematic trinket. Certainly, the more recent works of Assayas, like Personal Shopper and the wonderful Clouds of Sils Maria are a lot more focused, while still indirectly concerned with characters working in film. Still, this curio is a quirky, inventive and original peek behind the scenes of a production cursed enough to make Terry Gilliam shudder. It feels slight and whimsical, but it’s a lot deeper than it appears.