Friday, April 8, 2011


Olivier Assayas' 'Irma Vep' feels like the french/arthouse version of robert altman's 'the player', except on a smaller scale and without the murder. Assayas shows that Hollywood isn't the only movie scene where there's backstabbing, shadiness and utter chaos going on behind the camera. 'Irma Vep' (an anagram for "Vampire") is a fictional film about a studio's attempt to remake the old french silent film; 'Les Vampires', and all the craziness that comes along with it. The film is also a jab at modern french cinema (just like what 'The Player' was to Hollywood at the time of its release). Maggie Cheung essentilly stars as herself, set to reprise the title role in the remake. The somewhat unstable/washed-up director, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, has hired Cheung to act in the remake after seeing her agility & gracefulness in an action movie she did a few years ago (he seems to have no idea that all those agile and graceful maneuvers he saw were actually done by a stunt person and not Maggie Cheung herself).  After a chaotic shoot, the cast and crew look at the dailies, and the director is so displeased with the footage that he storms off and eventually has a nervous breakdown, leaving the fate of the film in limbo.
My favorite aspect of 'Irma Vep' isn't so much the main plot, but rather all the little things that are going on in the background and the references to other movies. Unfortunately, if you aren't up on french cinema, you might not get some of the little inside jokes and references. To some viewers, watching 'Irma Vep' might feel like watching Todd Haynes's 'Im Not There', but knowing very little about Bob Dylan (which is exactly what happened to me'). For example; legendary french actress Bulle Ogier has a cameo in 'Irma Vep', and makes a reference to how much she "likes latex". Unless you've seen her in 'Maitresse', where she played a dominatrix, you'll have no idea what she's talking about, or why that line is funny.

Bulle Ogier's Cameo In 'Irma Vep' ("I Like Latex")
Bulle Olgier (wearing latex) in 'Maitresse' (1975)

Speaking of latex, the costume used in the irma vep remake (pictured below), is not only an obvious nod to the michelle pfeiffer catwoman outfit (in fact there's a scene in 'Irma Vep' at the beginning of the movie where the costume designer shows Maggie Cheung a picture of pfeiffer's catwoman costume)...
Irma Vep
Batman 2

...but the latex costume also seemed to foreshadow Olivier Assayas' growing fascination with leather, latex and S&M which he explored in his later films...
'Demonlover' (2002)
'Boarding Gate' (2007)

There are plenty of other clever scenes and funny references to not just french cinema, but the movie industry all together. Take the first few minutes of the film. At first it seems kind of chaotic with all the handheld cinematography, but after a minute you realize there's a lot of structure. We see the same production assistant walk in and out of the scene holding a toy gun, trying to get approval from someone as to weather or not it looks real enough to use in a movie. The camera passes by a production manager arguing on the phone about budget while another production assistant, wearing a 'Terminator 2' t-shirt, quickly comes in to frame, etc. When Maggie Cheung arrives on set, fresh off of working on a kung-fu action movie, she's surrounded by various crew members. Cheung's character  is more interesting than i think people realize. When she arrives on the set of the 'Irma Vep' remake (which is essentially an arthouse film), its almost like she's somewhat insecure that she just came from doing a big action movie, so she tries to play it off like; "oh whatever, it was just a stupid martial arts movie. i dont really care about it". Any time in the film when Maggie Cheung is asked how she feels about french cinema or how she feels about acting in a remake of a classic french film, she gives these generic/vague answer like; "yeah, you know i like french movies a lot. i like the images". Later on in 'Irma Vep' there's a scene where a somewhat prick-ish/pretentious film critic calls her out on her vague and generic attitude.

Jean Pierre Leaud as a pretentious director in 'Last Tango In Paris'
Jean Pierre Leaud Directs in 'Irma Vep'

Olivier Assayas has a unique perspective on french cinema in that not only is he a director, but he was a film critic for Cahier Du Cinema. Some people may see that as a conflict of interest. When you watch 'Irma Vep' you can see both sides of Assayas. You can tell that some parts of 'Irma Vep' were approached by Assayas's film critic side, while other aspects of the movie where approached by his filmmaker side.
If you like movies like; '24 Hour Party People', 'Ivans XTC' or 'The Player', you'll enjoy 'Irma Vep' (even more if you're a fan of french cinema).


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