Release Date: 13th November 1996 (France)
Running Time: 95 mins.
Director: Olivier Assayas
Writer: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Maggie Cheung, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Nathalie Richard, Nathalie Boutefeu, Jacque Fieschi, Lou Castel, Bulle Ogier, Olivier Torres, Arsinée Khanjian
Irma Vep is a film about the magic of filmmaking, a comment about global film culture and a satirical look at the realities of the French film industry and it has a stellar performance from the incredibly beautiful Maggie Cheung.
Maggie Cheung (playing herself) has been cast by a once legendary director named René (Jean-Pierre Léaud) in the lead role of cat burglar Irma Vep in his remake of the classic silent film serial Les Vampires. From the moment Maggie arrives in Paris chaos ensues as the crew bicker amongst each other, a costumier named Zoe (Nathalie Richard) falls in love with her, and the director suffers a mental breakdown. Already an outsider in Paris she finds herself drawn to the character of Irma Vap and takes to wearing the spandex costume and prowling her hotel at night.
At its simplest the film can be seen as an outsider in Paris stumbling around the chaos of a film in crisis. There are big personalities and the film’s crew suffers internecine warfare, ignorant journalists giving their opinions in interviews, and Maggie left bewildered and amused by these aggressive and forward Europeans. She is frequently cut out of the conversations, only the odd person speaking English to her, and for the most part no one treats her like a star since they are unfamiliar with Hong Kong cinema. It is amusing and great at conveying the sense that she is an outsider which is a situation and sensation that allows Maggie to explore a different culture and her relation to films and the creative process which creates different layers of ideas.
I saw you in a very cheap movie theatre in Marrakech
The film shows how global film culture and creativity is through many details. Various characters have tales of working on Japanese/Chinese film sets and we witness life on a French one. There are clips from French political cinema from 40 years ago and Johnny To’s Heroic Trio.The soundtrack features West Africans melodies, Gainsbourg, and rock & roll, mixing alongside classics sung by chanteuses.
The film also shows the vagaries and nuances of the French film industry and global cinema culture. Characters verbalise the differences between intellectual/art house films and the more commercial Hollywood films which some of the French characters (with stereotypical cultural chauvinism) dismiss as creating movies for the dumb. Not that it is an idea which is universally shared since a journalist dismisses typical French cinema as being aimed at intellectuals, not the public who like Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, and John Woo. The joke is that the journalist has little idea about real Asian cinema and simply enthuses about the easily accessible genres that made their way over to the west like bullet-ballets and extreme violence. Maggie sets him straight with probably the truest answer: “There are different audiences for different films.”
The actors chosen to play the roles convey the transnational nature of cinema culture and the transcendent nature of passionate creation perfectly. The crew is populated with French people but there are also West and North Africans, and Germans. Our leading lady Maggie is Chinese but she spent some of her formative years in England and is multilingual. She is one of the biggest stars from Asia who, at the time of Irma Vep, had starred in magnificent films like Police Story, As Tears Go By, and Ashes of Time. Jean-Pierre Léaud might be familiar to cinephiles as the lead in Francois Truffaut’s 400 Blows, that landmark of the French New Wave. The two are examples or have been parts of the most inspirational moments of film history and they show how something wonderful can be created when someone is passionately inspired.
She’s all alone in Paris. She has no one. If she has no one, make the most of it.
One of the things I loved about the film was the fact that it captured the behaviour of people caught up in the passion of cinema, people in awe of real acting talent and great films. The way we can see something that inspires us and the film uses the characters to displays our reactions, our naïve love and secret desires with what we see on the screen. Maggie, René, and Nathalie come to show us these feelings as Maggie enters their lives.
René is unsure as to whether he wants to film Les Vampires until after he sees Maggie in Heroic Trio (not one of my favourites). He finds that nobody else fits the role.
“You are mysterious like Irma Vep, you are beautiful like Irma Vep and also you are magic like her and also you are very strong and modern and I want a modern Irma Vep.”
René has fallen in love with Maggie. Her presence inspires love and a new way of interpreting the world. His passion, born of film, is sublimated in his latest work and he demands that Maggie dons a skin tight body outfit and mask for the lead role. From the moment Maggie finds herself in an S&M shop trying out a latex costume you are very much aware that she has turned into a beautiful doll for those who view her (not necessarily my thing but whatever. Duelist was the last time I declared my love for a character/actress.). Rather amusingly Nathalie reacts with scepticism and comments “I say it looks like a hooker but if he wants a hooker, ok” but she reacts passionately to the image being created for the movie and begins to wonder Maggie as if she is a lesbian.
For Maggie being outside of the Hong Kong film scene brings the thrill of being an outsider which brings her closer to her character. She is soon wandering around her hotel corridors clad in the suit and darting into and out of rooms. It is part joke but the process brings her ultimately closer to the reality of creation, “That’s desire and I think it’s okay because that’s what we make movies with.”
Ultimately what is really important is that true talent and ideas are recognised. Through her adventures Maggie transcends the vagaries of filmmaking and connects with the passion René feels. “I understand René you know. It all makes sense to me”.That what René has recorded is a startling mess with images out of focus, the film stock damaged, out of place sound effects like industrial noise and Maggie Cheung dominates, it says more about the director’s fragile mental state and obsession with Maggie but it captures how a film actor/actress can inspire and convey our chaotic, inventive, and challenging feelings upon witnessing something great.
Irma Vep’s running time of 95 minutes felt shorter than it actually was because I had so much fun. It reminded me so much of Chungking Express in that it has a lightness of touch but a lot of depth and real emotional resonance. On the surface it can be taken as a breezy culture clash comedy focussing on the misadventures of an outsider in a world of chaos but deep down it has some interesting things to say about film and the passions of cinephiles.