Irma Vep (1996)

8 06 2008

This could very well be my favorite effort (so far) from Assayas. It most definitely would be if it was a bit more emotionally dynamic than his later features. Here, it is not so much a deep character study as it is a very playful and funny satire of the film-making process. If one is vaguely interested in modern French cinema, or Maggie Cheung (alas, now retired) then this is absolutely essential. It’s not some deep, ponderous masterpiece but rather a wonderful way to spend an hour and a half.

Maggie Cheung, fresh off a recent Hong Kong action film, arrives in Paris in preparation for her role as Irma Vep in a remake of Louis Feuillade’s 1915 film Les Vampires. The film’s director, Rene Vidal, seems to have been on a downward slope in recent years. He tells Maggie that he actually had no interest in the project until he realized that he could use her. The actual production of the film seems to hit a roadblock almost immediately. Rene, frustrated, seemingly disappears off the face of the earth. To make matters worse, his replacement has no interest in using Maggie in the film.

While Assayas has yet fully embraced his current aesthetic in this film, there are some signs of early signs of it. One completely random sequence features Maggie Cheung stumbling around her hotel room with Sonic Youth’s “Tunic” in the background. This seems to come out of nowhere, but it obviously is somewhat of a prelude to Assayas’ later film Demonlover. The rest of the film is much more polished, though, which is somewhat ironic considering that his next effort, Late August, Early September is probably his most chaotic.

Similarly, the overall tone of Irma Vep differs from the other entries in Assayas’ filmography. While his subsequent films would feature more fleshed out characters and consequential narratives, it is here that one feels very easygoing and uneventful. Basically nothing serious is at risk here, even all the relationships are based on very superficial and tame meetings. I suppose I could go as far as to classify this as minimalism but that would falsely imply that the film is “colder” than it actually is. Despite the many differences, this is still very much an Olivier Assayas film and a great one at that.

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