on October 17, 2004
Irma Vep elicits two reactions from different groups of people: nay sayers who view it as yet another boring French film and people who focus on the film-about-a-film. I think it is seriously misleading to view the film in either of these lights. Irma Vep should be viewed as a series of short films, tied together by the "plot" of the film. Each mini-plot is fascinating and together make the film wonderful.
If you don't know, Irma Vep is a movie about a Hong Kong action star (Maggie cheung) who arrives in Paris to do a remake of a 1915 French film about the French underworld. The director is losing his emotional stability and eventually the crew unravels. A lot has been said about the "film within the film" aspect of the movie, so I won't say more. What I think is fascinating is how the director tells a number of stories within this strange plot:
- The crash and burn of a film crew
- Zoe, the costume designer who is attracted to Maggie and she is rejected
- Maggie's desire to indulge in her criminal fantasies
- the director's strangely engaging mini-film
Since all this takes place in the middle of chaos, it can be hard to appreciate at first. There is really no beginning or end of the film. It is abrupt, which I think must reflect the experience of someone who arrives in the middle of turmoil. But each mini-plot is lovingly filmed and well acted. It also helps a great deal that Maggie Cheung is an attractive actress who can really carry well while wearing a latex suit the director insists she wear. The rest of the cast puts in a great performance as well, which allows you to engage with the other characters. On top of that, the film has lots of great shots - the weird footage at the end, Maggie sneaking through the hotel, the obligatory French dinner party, an incisive slam on the French film indusrty, etc..
Definitely worth it for people who can tolerate unusual plot structures and who enjoy beauty in unusual places. Check it out.
What the world needs is a movie about producing a book. You know, the creative angst of the author as he tries to remember when to use "which" and when to use "that," the nasty arguments over choosing a typeface, the dust jacket tantrums about artistic integrity if both boobs are shown or just one, the cattiness of the editors and, perhaps most insightful, whether the proofreading will continue to be the night guard's responsibility during his dinner break or whether the delivery boy from the next door deli should be given a crack at it.
Until that movie is made, Irma Vep will have to do. Please note that elements of the plot are discussed but there are absolutely no spoilers here or in the movie. Irma Vep is a movie about making a movie and it's stuffed with angst, pettiness, tantrums, ego and confusion. Taken on one of its own terms -- is it any good just as a movie -- the answer in my opinion is a loud "yes." Forget all the inside cineaste stuff (it is French, after all) and you may find that Irma Vep is funny, not just clever. It's good-natured with a friendly performance by Hong Kong kung fu heroine Maggie Cheung playing herself. Most of all, it is so eccentric a movie I seldom could stop smiling.
Rene Vidal (Jean-Pierre Leaud), an aging New Wave director now well past his sell-by date, is planning a comeback. He'll re-make a long, long and long ago silent movie called Les Vampires, a movie about a gang of criminals who prowl and stalk. One of them, in a skin-tight black body suit and black mask, is named Irma Vep. She will be Vidal's inspiration. He has just the star in mind to play Irma...Maggie Cheung. Maggie, who doesn't speak French, shows up in Paris ready to work. Cast and crew snipe and argue in many mini-dramas. Vidal collapses. Cast and crew snipe and argue some more. Maggie, an outsider and quite taken by the black latex outfit she and the costume designer, Zoe (Nathalie Richard) picked up cheap at a Parisian sex shop, whiles away the time one night by creeping about her hotel wearing the suit. Like Irma Vep, Maggie sees things in the hallways and rooms, some worth taking, and then there is the nighttime rain and the high, outside fire escape leading up to the hotel's roof. All does not go well for the movie. Eventually Maggie leaves for New York to take a meeting with Ridley Scott.
Not much there, I know, except for director and writer Olivier Assayas' amusing style and Maggie Cheung's bemusement and lithe creeping. There is much pleasure in Assayas' take on movie making and movie people, but the pleasure for me comes from noticing how I came to rather enjoy and like all those behind-the-scenes groupies, workers and jerks. The dish, of course, is amusing. "Directors thrive on hypocrisy," says one. "Yeah," says another, "but sometimes they go overboard." The interview between Maggie and a young, intense film enthusiast is priceless...John Woo versus Jean-Luc Godard. The film enthusiast has strong opinions about both. Maggie doesn't.
Maggie Cheung gives a sweet center to this movie, but I liked just as much Nathalie Richard as Zoe, the lean, blonde, tentative, cigarette-smoking, girl-liking costume designer. She's past her prime if you're a teenage boy, but right at her peak if you're an adult of either sex.
Film lovers might enjoy one message. "Cinema is not magic. It's a technique and a science. A technique born of science and at the service of a will, the will of the workers to free themselves." Got that? Essayas manages to combine the idea of movies (popular entertainment) and film (a much more deadly serious concept of the movies) in a way that is eccentric and engaging. Film insiders and hopeful film insiders just might love this movie. Yet as funny and eccentric as Eerma Wep is, it's still just a movie by a talented director about making a movie. If you like movies and are relaxed about "film," I think you'll enjoy it.
This DVD issue by Zeitgeist has a very good picture.
*In film noir the source of discontent is the tedious/repetitiveness of modern life, and the most tedious task we modern characters are forced to perform is the reproduction of (an unjust) social world. Film noir characters are thus rebellious sociopaths who refuse and resist in whatever way they can, but often the form their rebellion takes is itself tedious/repetitive and so these characters quickly become fatalistic/nihilistic.
*What is fetishized in film noir is crime itself. Because that is where the characters (and the audience members) experience their moment of rebellion, of freedom.
*Of course the crime can take many forms: a hiest, adultery, a murder, looking at a painting, reading or writing a book, watching or making or acting in a film, or simply being onself (off camera).
*Whats really wonderful about a fim like Beineix's Diva is that the crime is something as minor as illegally recording an opera and then stealing the diva's dress. In Diva, art (and art appreciation) is viewed as transgressive and exciting.
*And whats wonderful about a film like Lynch's Blue Velvet is that the originary crime is simply boredom which begets curiosity which begets investigation which begets spying which begets awareness of every other form of transgressive behavior which begets knowledge.
*In life most of us are forced to hide out from ourselves. We hide out from ourselves in jobs that we don't like, we hide out from ourselves in relationships that require us to act more socially presentable and acceptable than we feel like acting, we hide out from ourselves in suburbs, in family life, we hide out from ourselves in all kinds of ways. These jobs we take and the roles we play might be the very things that allow us to be ourselves, or at least certain versions of ourselves, but cinema is a place where we can acknowledge those other less social truths and less social selves that we must conceal in our everyday lives.
*Sometimes everything about life feels fraudulent and we can't wait to get to the cinema to get a dose of truth. At other times its just the opposite.
*Like Feuillade and Lang and Godard (and many other filmmakers), Assayas views the modern world as a series of enclosures and he locates the source of our discontent in the tedious professions that require us to occupy single enclosures and play single roles for extended periods of time. Godard's Breathless is wonderful because its about someone who is tired of playing a gangster but who simply lacks the imagination or will to perform any other role even though he seems like a natural actor. Irma Vep is wonderful because its about an actress who only comes alive (as herself) when she is not being viewed by anyone and can perform only for herself on the rooftops of Paris. In this film, the greatest thrill/crime is simply giving oneself the permission and freedom to be oneself.
on September 30, 2014
One of my favorite all-time movies. It certainly has a different feel to it from an American movie, but if you're willing to step outside the Hollywood coma of overstimulation, trying too hard, and contrived plots and reactions, this movie is brilliant. It is true art, and you will feel like you just watched a real movie for the first time with this one. Unbelievable and profound. I wish they would shoot all movies like this.
"Irma Vep" is a 1996 cult classic about film and filmmaking written and directed by Olivier Assayas. It is a film for film buffs, which is its limitation. At the same time, it has a charming sense of humor not usually found in art house fare. Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung, playing herself, arrives in Paris a the request of director René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud) to star in a remake of the 1915 silent French serial "Les Vampires". She is to play the leading role, that of Irma Vep, leader of a group of Parisian burglars who commit their crimes wearing black catsuits and hoods. The film's friendly costume designer Zoé (Nathalie Richard) gets Cheung fitted into her latex catsuit and makes her feel at ease. But the director's state of mind is not as stable.
When I saw the holes in René's shoes, I suspected this might turn out to be something fun. René is a has-been director whom his own crew thinks past his prime and perhaps a little touched in the head. His recreation of "Les Vampires" does nothing to disabuse them of that notion. Zoé doesn't like American films or the tendency of French directors to dwell in the past. Another crew member adores big Hollywood popcorn movies and disparages the French film industry for making films for themselves rather than for audiences. Maggie from Hong Kong is caught in the middle. René hates the dailies and might be having a nervous breakdown. And it's not clear why he would make a shot-for-shot remake of this old French classic -to him or to anyone else.
There is something delightfully realistic about the characters. Their minds are going off in different directions. René is losing his. Zoé is having sexual fantasies about Maggie in the catsuit and hopes the actress is game. Maggie understands her character a little too well when she puts on that costume and begins to have criminal impulses. All of this on a chaotic, low-budget movie set. It's funny. The characters are fun to watch. It's easy to understand René's inspiration to cast the Chinese Cheung as a Parisian burglar. Maggie is captivating and easy-going. She's the calm amid the chaos who lets everything wash over her, like the audience. In English and French with optional English subtitles.
on December 18, 2012
Honk if you love French cinema. This is the other side of Truffaut's "Day for Night." A comedic (and confusing) romp through the world of a washed-up French film director (Jean-Pierre Léaud) who brings in a Chinese action star (a femme fatale in a latex cat-suit played by the real Maggie Cheung playing herself) in a remake of Louis Feuillade's 1915 masterpiece "Les Vampires." Cheung tries to maintain her composure as all hell breaks loose around her. She speaks even less French than I do, but is pursued all over Paris by the wardrobe mistress and other loose cannons on the set (no dental prostheses and no spilled blood, though). Eventually, the director goes bonkers, and so did I. The ending is kinda strange, but it's good clean fun up until then!
on September 24, 1999
I recently discussed this film with my dad, whom I'd recommended it to very highly. He told me he found it so boring he'd turned it off halfway through. I suppose I can understand the sentiment, although I think Maggie is adorable throughout and, even though he's really decrepit and his English is almost unintelligible, I would watch Jean-Pierre Leaud read the yellow pages for two hours. But I told my father: YOU MUST RENT IT AGAIN AND WATCH THE ENDING. It literally took my breath away and it redefines Leaud's character in a heartbreaking way.