Zeitgeist Films // 1997 // 96 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Daryl Loomis // November 19th, 2008
A latex comedy
The original 1915 Les Vampires is an interesting, enigmatic serialized French film that has been lauded for showing a "real" Paris. Using the story of a cabaret and the underground criminal syndicate that runs out of it, director Louis Feuillade was able to shine a light on the struggle of a modernizing France while spinning a fun suspense story at the same time. The film was restored and released in 1996 as part of France's celebration of a hundred years of cinema. Hailed once again as a landmark of film and their cultural heritage, director Oliver Assayas (L'enfant de l'hiver) simultaneously created homage to the classic and a wry satire of the pretensions of French cinema.
René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud, 36 fillette), a washed-up, formerly well-respected filmmaker, is hired to direct a remake of the classic French silent film Les Vamipires. He agrees to help it on the condition that Maggie Cheung (In the Mood for Love) plays the lead role. Though her expertise is Hong Kong action, she hasn't done much international work, and she doesn't know a word of French, she agrees to take the role. Now in Paris, she must contend with her pretentious and over-bearing director and a crush from her wardrobe person while starring in a confusing remake that may never even get made.
Taking cues from Robert Altman and the French New Wave, Assayas throws us into the middle of an already developing story. Maggie Cheung has arrived in Paris to begin shooting what she quickly sees is an already troubled production. Nobody trusts the director, who has made nothing but trash for years, and her first impression of Vidal is massive delays and miscommunications. He doesn't do much to make her think otherwise, but this is her first real chance at international film and she doesn't want to complain, so she makes nice with him and everyone else in the production. The crew is taken by her charms -- some more than others -- and, even though she can barely communicate with most of them, her influence helps to keep the production rolling.
Cheung is fantastic at playing herself. As the character, she is confounded by Vidal's direction for her to just be Maggie Cheung. That this is the same direction that Assayas, in reality, gave to the actress, lends a feeling of authenticity to the film that many other films-within-films cannot muster. This realism extends beyond this character, however. There is no dramatic thrust to the film, the most realistic thing of all. Aside from the relatively minor subplot of Laure (Nathalie Richard, A+ Pollux) and her crush on Maggie, these people just want to get this mess of a movie made and move on with their lives.
While there is no doubt that making a film can often be a tedious, uneventful procedure, this realism does not entirely work to the benefit of the film. It is easy to feel the frustration of the crew as they're just trying to get through the day, but their ennui extends to the audience who, finally, are just trying to get through the movie. Watching Vidal flail around while the rest of the crew rolls their eyes only works for so long. Though Cheung is fantastic, looks great in her catsuit, and the breaks from this action provide some real interest, there isn't enough dramatic thrust to the film to keep me interested.
Though Irma Vep may not feature the most dynamic story, there is a lot of life in the artistic vision of the film. Assayas employs an intimate, close up feel for much of the film, but throws various kinds of stylistic touches around that constantly shift back to and from that base. The thrust of Vidal's remake is, first, the original film and, second, the choice of Cheung for the lead was made solely from her performance in Johnny To's Heroic Trio. The footage from each of these films gives an immediately different feel. Assayas himself then breaks the routine by showing us the stylized black and white rushes of Cheung's performances as well as the filming of actual scenes in the remake. The interlacing of the two films doesn't cause the intrigue and confusion of Richard Rush's The Stunt Man, but is a nicely jarring artistic contrast. These jaunts outside the usual static feel keep the film rolling along and make each segment more interesting in light of the rest.
Most important to the art of Irma Vep, however, is in the choice Assayas makes for the music for the film. Instead of a standard score, he opts for art rock bands, including Sonic Youth, Luna, and Ali Farka Touré, whose songs dictate the length and mood of the scenes they're included in. The songs are great on the one hand, but it also gives the scenes a feeling of warmth and completeness. The music plays a role in the action, and the scene sheds light on the song; it's a very nice stylistic choice that makes the whole package greater than its individual parts.
Zeitgeist Films consistently does great work with often overlooked art titles and their release of Irma Vep is no exception. The new anamorphic transfer looks very good though, because Assayas uses different types of film -- -from restored silent footage to 16mm stock and from color to black and white -- -there are limitations to how sharp the film can look. There are no transfer errors, however, the colors are bright and there is good black and white contrast. The stereo sound is unspectacular. Given how important a role the music plays in the film, it's too bad they couldn't make it more dynamic. It is free from noise, however, and the dialog is very clear.
A good number of extras are included to supplement the main feature. The commentary track is an informative question and answer session with Assayas and film critic Jean-Michel Frodon. It may not always be relevant to the film itself, but is a great look at the importance of film criticism and Assayas's views on film in general. A half hour collection of behind the scenes and travel footage continues the extras with either the original field sound or a conversation, once again between Assayas and Frodon, that rehashes much of the material in the commentary, though in a more directed, less spontaneous setting. Finally, in a study of Maggie Cheung, we have some black and white rushes of her running around in the catsuit and Man Yuk: A Portrait of Maggie Cheung, a short film by Assayas that shows he has a similar obsession with the actress as Vidal in his film. Fans of Assayas, Maggie Cheung, and this film have a wealth of information in this release.
Irma Vep may not be the most thrilling feature in the world, but its combination of realism and stylistic sense give it a breezy feeling that make it an enjoyable, if ultimately forgettable, experience.
Review content copyright © 2008 Daryl Loomis; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
* 1.66:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Release Year: 1997
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Audio commentary
* Audio essay
* Short film: Man Yuk: A Portrait of Maggie Cheung
* Behind the Scenes