Irma Vep November 16, 2016
Because I’m prone to believing that any moviemaking experience is as enjoyable as the film that ultimately sits in front of me, disheartening are features revolving around the making of movies wherein it’s decided that not every production is partial to imitating some sort of quasi-heaven. Sometimes personalities clash and sometimes filming a certain scene is agonizing rather than passion-fueled. Sometimes expressing yourself through your craft of choice can start feeling like a job, or, even worse, a chore.
But whereas the best movie about moviemaking ever made, François Truffaut’s magnificent Day for Night (1973), brought a certain sort of romantic charm to the above
mentioned cinematic chaos, Olivier Assayas’s weirder Irma Vep (1996) conjoins New Wave cool and baldfaced surrealism. It, too, is among the most coercive films about filmmaking ever made. With one eye on industry satire and another on simple reality-blurring, Assayas’s vision is broad but focused.
Taking place in the mid-1990s, a time during which the French film industry was threatened by extinction due to the mounting popularity of North American action imports, Irma Vep follows the doomed production of Les Vampires, a remake of Louis Feuillade’s famed 1916 serial of the name. Helmed by René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud), a has-been, growingly inept master of the silver screen, the feature is intended to be little more than a photocopy of the original series: photographed in black and white and produced as a silent movie.
Everyone involved has accepted that 1996’s Les Vampires is going to be a disaster, especially after Vidal proves to be even more temperamental than his reputation has suggested and especially after he inexplicably hires Hong Kong action star Maggie Cheung (as herself) to play the film’s heroine. See her in a catsuit, though, and your doubts melt away. It’s Vidal’s inability to keep his head on straight for more than 30 seconds that ends up being the ultimate concern.
It’d all be relentlessly depressing if the tone Assayas was going for weren’t so sardonic. But since his Irma Vep is so witty and knowing, being seduced by the film’s cheeky self-referentiality is unavoidable. Pointed without being mean-spirited, it’s a scrumptious making-of parody able to bring auteur culture back down to Earth all the while maintaining easygoing perceptiveness.
One doesn’t have to know much about the French movie industry, the cult fanbase which circles around the original Les Vampires, the career of the always luminous Maggie Cheung, or the homages to the New Wave (of which Léaud himself was a seminal figure) to appreciate Assayas’s deconstruction of the filmmaking process. Blasé but cutting, Irma Vep is satire that prefers the stance of slice-of-life offhandedness to the going-for-the-throat mentality of S.O.B. (1981). The breeziness is becoming B+