Irma Vep

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Irma Vep is an obvious anagram of “vampire” and so you might reasonably expect it to be about a vampire, or vampires, or something that sucks blood. Maybe? Wrong. And yet right. Oh these trickster French directors.

Olivier Assayas wrote this 1996 movie, as he did the 2022 TV show based on it. Both tell the same story – of a foreign actress who arrives in Paris to star in a remake of a classic 1915 film, Les Vampires, about a mysterious black-clad female who is part cat burglar, part seductress and part muse, and the force behind a criminal gang called the Vampires, on account of the dark clothing more than anything else.

So that’s the name explained. In 2022 Alicia Vikander arrives wide-eyed in Paris; in 1996 Maggie Cheung is the innocent walking into a chaotic world of French film-making and being tossed this way and that by the vagaries of a business that didn’t know quite what it was doing, at least in Assayas’s joshing assessment of it.

The film is really all about French film-making, in a particular and general sense, and starts in mock-doc style with an actress called Maggie Cheung, played by Maggie Cheung, arriving a week late at the production offices of upcoming movie Irma Vep, where a whirlwind of activity propels her into the welcoming outstretched hand of the hassled producer. Then it’s on to meet Zoé (Nathalie Richard), the head of wardrobe who will be Maggie’s confidante at work and her passport to Paris’s social life. And on again to Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a neuraesthenic director who is already head-in-hands about the whole concept of remaking Louis Feuillade’s seminal film. Surely no one can be better than Musidora, the actress in the 1915 original, he opines less-than-helpfully to Maggie, who takes all this neurotic director stuff in her stride.

Maggie in the rain in her rubber suit
Maggie tries a bit of freelance cat-burgling

It will not get better than this. Over the course of the next few days, Maggie’s good nature is tested to endurance by the many problems that can beset a film production – from the producer running out of money to language barriers, Maggie’s sexy one-piece rubber costume being too tight, actors corpsing in scenes, sexual feelings (Zoé for Maggie), the director falling out with his wife, Maggie staying out too late and oversleeping. Every little thing that can go wrong will go wrong, including the director eventually losing it entirely.

And running constantly as a meta-motif is the whole nature of French film-making itself – elitist, navel-gazing, amateurish – most clearly expressed in a little scene where Maggie does a quickie interview on set with a journalist, who goes off on one about French film’s artsy nonsense while Maggie, ever the diplomat, tries a few yes-but ripostes in vain.

This from Assayas, a director you might easily accuse of all those things (not amateurish, though, never amateurish, except in the best sense of the word), who is essentially getting his defence in first before doing with Irma Vep exactly what French movies since Jean-Luc Godard are meant to, making the internals (the nuts and bolts of movie-making) into the show itself, and taking what would have been the externals and going meta with them. At one point Maggie dons her latex outfit while off duty and goes off on a bit of a cat-burgling spree herself.

Vidal (and possibly, by extension, Assayas) is right, Musidora is a tough act to follow and in the little clips from the original 1915 movie it’s obvious she’s a charismatic performer and then some. But Cheung, in a performance that’s as light and easy as Assayas’s beautifully fluid cameras, has no problem matching her, and she looks good in shiny rubber (as does Alicia Vikanda in the updated TV version).

Though Maggie Cheung could easily have slotted in to the “cinéma du look” of a few years earlier – Bresson, Beineix, Caras – this is a far more superficially realistic film, with no “lookisme” at all. But straightforward? Not even slightly.

Irma Vep – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2023

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