Friday May 16, 1997
Olivier Assayas' amusing "Irma Vep" is an homage to radiant and versatile Hong Kong star Maggie Cheung--and a blast at contemporary French filmmaking. Assayas displays an intimate, informal style and a sharp sense of proportion that allows him to have some fun, score some points and then wrap it all up before overstaying his welcome. "Irma Vep" is as effortless as a shrug and boasts a film buff's dream cast.
Jean-Pierre Leaud, all but unintelligible in English (which doesn't much matter, as it turns out), plays a washed-up, burnt-out New Wave director who has a not-bad idea: to star Cheung in a film based on Louis Feuillade's 1915 serial "Les Vampires." Cheung would play Feuillade's super-villainess Irma Vep (an anagram for Vampire).
Cheung has the figure for a black latex bodysuit and head mask--Irma's standard gear--in which only her expressive eyes and mouth are visible, and is an action star as well as splendid actress. But from the moment Cheung, who is in effect playing herself, arrives in Paris, nothing goes right.
The rushes that Leaud's Rene Vidal manages to shoot before experiencing a major nervous breakdown look pretty good, but there's no sense that Vidal is ever really in control of his set, and it swiftly becomes doubtful that he'll ever return to it. Already lots of nasty stuff is happening. Nathalie Richard's Zoe, the production's conscientious, hyper wardrobe mistress, is a lesbian instantly smitten with the gorgeous Cheung--and almost as quickly humiliated when a film executive's harebrained wife (Bulle Ogier) takes it upon herself to inform Cheung of Zoe's attraction to her.
Already treated like dirt by the company's humorless female assistant director, a gossip and rumormonger of world-class maliciousness, poor Zoe now confronts the widespread assumption that she and Cheung have already commenced an affair. The truth is that Zoe is hesitant even to make the slightest pass at the star, who she assumes is straight.
The new "Les Vampires" is swiftly swamped in backbiting, turf-defending and an awesome obliviousness to Cheung, who's self-possessed, professional and uncomplaining. In a deliciously suspenseful sequence that is quintessential Feuillade, Cheung is not above discovering for herself whether she's up to playing Irma.
A couple of other characters deserve mentioning: Antoine Basler's obnoxious journalist who, while interviewing Cheung, sounds off on the French cinema, past and present, for not being more commercial and eagerly trashes one of the greatest national cinemas in history.
Then there's Lou Castel, a '60s survivor as worn-looking as Leaud's director, as the director lined up to replace him. In a grand dismissive gesture that can only be described as racist, he proclaims he would not have a Chinese playing Irma Vep, who he proclaims is "the Paris underworld! Arletty!"--as if Irma were Marie Antoinette or Sarah Bernhardt. (Actually, Cheung has a certain resemblance to Musidora, the original Vep.) As tumult takes over, Assayas pulls back to create a lovely surreal coda in homage to Cheung.
Zoe keeps saying that she sees no point in remaking Feuillade films, but it has been done several times, never so poignantly as with Georges Franju's 1964 "Judex," which by coincidence screens May 23-24 at 7:15 p.m. at Raleigh Studios, launching the American Cinematheque's Franju retrospective.
Irma Vep, 1997. Unrated. A Zeitgeist Films presentation of a Dacia Films production. Writer-director Olivier Assayas. Producer Georges Benayoun. Executive producer Francoise Guglielmi. Cinematographer Eric Gautier. Editor Luc Barnier. Costumes Francoise Clavel and Jessica Doyle. Production designer Francoise-Renaud Labarthe. In English and French, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes. Maggie Cheung as Maggie. Jean-Pierre Leaud as Rene Vidal. Nathalie Richard as Zoe. Bulle Ogier as Mireille. Lou Castel as Jose Murano.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times