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ON DVD & BLU-RAY

Irma Vep (1996) starring Maggie Cheung Blu Ray (Arrow Academy)

Maggie Cheung in a Feuillade remake

This drama set behind-the-scenes of the French film industry features Chinese actress Maggie Cheung playing herself. She is cast as the rubber clad villainess Irma Vep in a remake of Louis Feuillade’s silent serial Les Vampires. As soon as she arrives in Paris, however, the production is a picture of chaos. Her costume designer Zoé (Nathalie Richard) is a bisexual bohemian who takes more than a little physical interest in her. The director who cast her, René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud), is a pretentious sort who is wildly fickle and volatile in his moods. Everyone bickers constantly.

Things go even further off the rails when René has a nervous breakdown and hands the reins to another director named José Mirano (Lou Castel) - who has his own very different ideas about how it should be done.

Watch a trailer:

French cinema behind the scenes

Irma Vep is one of those rare films that’s an absolute delight to watch from start to finish and yet it is so difficult to pin down exactly what makes it so. In part, it’s a mockumentary examination of the behind-the-scenes drama within the French arthouse film industry in the manner of François Truffaut’s Day for Night, even to the extent of casting Jean-Pierre Léaud. It also examines how French filmmaking has shifted in focus from the unpretentious escapism of old Feuillade serials to the intellectual posturing of (again) Truffaut and Godard. The film can also be read as a simple love letter to the incomparable beauty of Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung, who subsequently became married to director Olivier Assayas between 1998 and 2001. Here, she manages to come across as being both delightfully unassuming in her manner and ludicrously sexy in her character’s tight rubber costume.

The feel of the movie is decidedly free-wheeling and, at times, feels more like a series of vignettes than a straight-ahead story. A dinner sequence involving Maggie, Zoé and the latter’s fellow crewmates is one loaded with hilarious embarrassment as Zoé confesses how attracted she is to the actress. While the relationship between the two never quite blossoms into the torrid affair that it teases, there’s still a decided tinge of the romantic to their bike trips past the glowing night-time illuminations of Paris. Later on, we get a scene of Maggie playing Irma Vep for real as she sneaks into a hotel room late at night and steals an expensive-looking necklace, only to head up to the rain-drenched rooftop and hurl it off into the darkness below. It’s a surreal and out-of-the-blue moment, never fully explained and potentially nothing more than a dream that the actress had. At another point, Maggie is interviewed by a journalist who admits his love of Hong Kong action cinema before proceeding to denigrate the state of contemporary French film. There’s even a spot of abstract animation at the end involving scratching on film - a consummation of a sort of marriage between the pop and art aspects of cinema.

Irma Vep (1996)

Perhaps the main reason why Irma Vep works, however, is the performances. Everyone feels natural and spontaneous here, enhancing the pseudo-documentary aspects of the film and making the various sundry moments of comedy and drama feel very real - even within all of the surrounding strangeness. While Maggie Cheung, playing herself, is immensely watchable and Jean-Pierre Léaud essays another of those arrogantly passionate aesthetic types whom he always plays so well, it’s arguably Nathalie Richard who turns in the standout performance here as the amiable but headstrong costume designer.

It’s a near-perfect film, enjoyable on so many levels as long as you just go with its distinctive ebb and flow.

Runtime: 99 mins

Dir: Olivier Assayas

Script: Olivier Assayas

Starring: Maggie Cheung, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Nathalie Richard, Nathalie Boutefeu, Alex Descas, Bulle Ogier, Lou Castel

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

While it is a 2K restoration supervised by Assayas himself, the film’s grainy and naturalistic style of shooting means that there isn’t much visual fancifulness to spruce up in the first place. Some of the dialogue (mostly Léaud’s) is a little too far down in the mix, necessitating turning the volume up.

Extras

Commentary by Olivier Assayas and Jean-Michel Frodon

Although labelled as a commentary on the film, this appears to be an audio recording of an on-stage interview and audience Q & A with director Assayas and French film critic Frodon. It even makes reference to clips from Assayas’s films which, in this context, are omitted. Some of the director’s comments are of interest, especially when he talks about his directorial choices. For example, he avoids using scores as he feels that they add a “fake cinema texture” and uses long handheld takes so that the actors’ dialogue scenes feel organic. Overall, however, it’s a bit of a ramble with too little of specific relevance to the film presented on this disc.

On the set of Irma Vep

This is meta indeed: a behind-the-scenes shoot on the set of a film which takes place behind-the-scenes! This also comes with a commentary which, again, seems to have been culled from an on-stage interview with Assayas and Frodon. This time, however, it is more relevant to the film and considerably more interesting. Assayas explains that the early concept for the film was for it to be part of an anthology of three segments, each one focussing on a foreign woman in Paris and each from a different director (the other two were to be helmed by Claire Denis and Atom Egoyan). While the anthology format never happened, Denis’s section was turned into the feature-length Trouble Every Day (2001). Assayas himself reworked his section to use actress Maggie Cheung after he was inspired by his first meeting with her. While Cheung grew up in England, this was her first English-language role and also her first semi-improvised performance.

Assayas also reveals that the closing sequence, involving scratching on film, was inspired by the experimental work Venom and Eternity (1951) which was directed by Isidore Isou.

Interview with Olivier Assayas and Charles Tesson

Assayas and Tesson talk about their time researching a special on Asian cinema for French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma in 1984. They offer a fascinating insight into the Eastern world during this period, revealing that the old Hong Kong studio system was collapsing to make way for the city state’s own New Wave of filmmakers which included the likes of Tsui Hark. In Taiwan, meanwhile, the regime of martial law was collapsing and that country’s cinema started reflecting their new-found freedom.

Assayas also talks about his first time meeting Maggie at the Venice Film Festival and his quest to get her to appear in Irma Vep. As an aside, he also confesses to being a big fan of the Shaw Brothers production Killer Constable. He’s right: it’s a great film.

Interview with Maggie Cheung and Nathalie Richard

A lively and cordial interview with the film’s two main female actresses, who switch between French and English throughout. Maggie reveals that she found working in the French film industry to be refreshing since she was no longer treated with the big star reverence that she received in Hong Kong. She also explains that out-of-the-blue jewellery theft scene, describing it as being a little adventure that she has in order to cope with the challenges of working on the film-within-the-film.

Man Yuk - A Portrait of Maggie Cheung

An experimental (and inexplicable) silent short directed by Olivier Assayas, featuring close-ups of the actress applying face cream, smiling behind naked flames and so on. Whatever Assayas had in mind here, it doesn’t work.

Black and White Rushes

A series of rushes of Cheung in full Irma Vep garb on Parisian rooftops. That’s about it.

A trailer rounds out the extras.

Overall:

This is one of those wonderful and original movies that’s hard to pigeonhole but somehow occupies a unique place in the memory. The extras are a mixed bag but the better ones here are fascinating.

Movie: ☆☆☆☆☆

Video: ☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆1/2

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