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Weekly Alibi Irma Vep

Cinema Du Jour

By Devin D. O'Leary

SEPTEMBER 15, 1997:  Self-consciousness and self-referential "in-jokes" have long been a tradition of filmmaking. From Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr. to Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 to Francois Truffaut's Day for Night to Robert Altman's The Player, there have been few subjects that have fascinated filmmakers quite so much as themselves. The French have a wonderful slang term for it: "nombrilistic," which, bluntly translated, means "navel-gazing." The new film Irma Vep by up-and-coming avant-frenchy Oliver Assayas nestles quite nicely into the company of those other great filmmakers.

Irma Vep's fast and loose storyline concerns a Hong Kong action star named Maggie Cheung (played by Hong Kong action star Maggie Cheung) who is summoned to Paris to star in a remake of Louis Feuillade's silent film classic Les Vampires. Cheung is unceremoniously dumped into the midst of a chaotic (and ultimately troubled) film set and left to fend for herself among the harried (and occasionally wacko) characters behind the scenes. We have an old-school "new-wave" director in the process of having a nervous breakdown; we have a lesbian costume designer with a serious jones for the lithesome Asian star, and we have an entire subculture's worth of bickering, overworked production managers, set decorators, cameramen, actors and stunt women.

Assayas shoots nearly the entire film with a roaming hand-held camera, giving everything a totally believable "documentary" feel. The acting is largely improvised and completely natural. Fans of Mike (Secrets & Lies) Leigh's work will find an eerie similarity at play here. Characters babble incoherently, chat meaninglessly, wander in and out of scenes and occasionally spout words of great wisdom. The fact that the film is in both English and French (with appropriate subtitles) means that strict attention is required to pick up on many of the film's subtleties. Nonetheless, Assayas achieves a certain musical rhythm in his pacing. Cheung, a magnetic cinematic face if there ever was one, displays much more talent than she is normally allowed to in such (admittedly entertaining) chopsocky fare as Heroic Trio and Supercop. Nathalie Richard, as the hot-and-heavy costumer, manages to poke her head and shoulders above the chaos and din here and emerge as an energetic presence amidst a sea of energy.

Despite its concentration on the backstage politics of moviemaking, Irma Vep is really more interested in the state of film today, rather than the people who do it. Although many of the references are quite French (Feuillade's silent film work, journalists obsessed with John Woo), it's not too difficult to understand the message. Rene Vidal (Jean-Pierre Leaud), our new-wave director, has taken on a massively stupid project. He's trying to remake a very antiquated thriller about a female super-thief. His decision to cast the lovely foreigner Maggie Cheung in the title role seems inspired. Unfortunately, that single flash of avant-garde brilliance is all he's got in him. The joke, of course, is that the French new wave is, nowadays, as old-fashioned as Louis Feuillade's 1915 melodrama. Cheung, our level-headed heroine, is the single island of professional calm in this circus of snobbery, backstabbing and "artistic" expression. The scene in which she tries to get a handle on her elusive character--suiting up in her rubber catsuit and stealing some jewelry from a hotel guest--is a magnificent bit of filmmaking.

Irma Vep is certainly not a film for the casual viewer. Its insight, drama and considerable humor are best appreciated by hardcore filmheads. The ending (in which our troubled director's unfinished "masterpiece" is finally revealed) may seem frustratingly abrupt. Remember, though, this is a movie about a movie that is falling apart. With that in mind, the ending only confirms the brilliance of Assayas' vision. What's the future of film in France? Maybe it's Oliver Assayas.

--Devin D. O'Leary


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