Tuesday, 11 March 2008

Irma Vep (1996, France, Olivier Assayas)

The process of film-making is an often used concept in film; just think of Truffaut's 'Day For Night' and Godard's 'Le Mepris' for the definitive examples of this. Not that it's just a French preoccupation of course, but Olivier Assayas follows in the footsteps of the aforementioned New Wave film makers with 'Irma Vep', which like their films, traces the hazards and pitfalls of making films, in this case a remake of Feuillade's 'Les Vampires'.

The start lets us know we're in dangerous territory; frantic discussions about finance and locations, arguments amongst the crew, a missing director - scenes and conversations which all overlap but relate to each other. At the centre of this intended film is Maggie Cheung (herself), the Hong Kong actress who was specifically cast by Vidal the director (Truffaut veteran and alter-ego Jean-Pierre Leaud) for the part of the title character. Here she gently spoofs herself; an actress who for years was cast in action films as little more than the heroine playing second fiddle to her male star but managed to break out of this stereotype thanks to directors like Wong-Kar Wai and Stanley Kwan. Discussing the film she has just completed, she cites a rather ridiculous and contrived plot, almost a parody of the action films she was once cast in. We see scenes of 'The Heroic Trio' (1993) later, which appears ludicrous, yet Vidal cast her on the basis of this film, though we suspect he just likes the idea if her as a slinky heroine in latex. Of course when journalists interview her about her career, all they are interested in is working with the likes of Jackie Chan on such films. 'Irma Vep' shows Cheung to be an accomplished comic actress with a nice line in self-deprecation.

We then witness event after event that shows the incompetence behind the film, even putting the entire production at risk at times, such as struggling to buy a PVC catsuit in a sex shop, early rushes from the film meeting unanimous dissatisfaction, and Vidal's nervous breakdown. All the while, Cheung has to deal with the romantic intentions of a female crew member, as well as take a slightly sinister interest in her part, almost living the role for real, as she walks the roofs of Paris on wet nights. The entire narrative more or less exists within the film production besides one dinner party. Assayas shows the intimacy of the film making processes, and whilst he shows the production of a fairly lousy looking film made by an over the hill director, it's never nasty in tone. It has the right satirical edge to it, and says plenty about contemporary film in both France and the United States. French journalists criticise the kind of films Vidal makes; dull, intellectual films that represent an older French cinematic tradition, whilst remaining enthusiastic about popular and mainstream films, as well as the action films of Hong Kong and the United States. It's thr triumph of commercialism over art, which is a pretty apt summation of the times in which we live.

It's a neat gimmick, even if it seems a bit disposable. I know the likes of Jonathan Rosenbaum have described this as a masterpiece in the past, and I can kind of see his point. It makes a number of salient points about contemporary film making but ceases before it really gets going. That said, it was written and shot on the hop. Rosenbaum also criticised the interpretation of many critics of 'Irma Vep' existing as a self-examination of French cinema. It does, but also much more. This is a film that examines cinema globally. 4/5

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