Combustible Celluloid
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With: Maggie Cheung, Jean-Pierre Leaud, Nathalie Richard, Antoine Basler, Nathalie Boutefeu, Alex Descas, Dominique Faysse, Bulle Ogier
Written by: Olivier Assayas
Directed by: Olivier Assayas
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: English, French with English subtitles
Running Time: 97
Date: 09/06/1996

Irma Vep (1997)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Maggie Hour

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

We just love to make movies about movies, to deconstruct them and to see what's behind them. Some of the most notable include: A Star Is Born, Sunset Boulevard, The Bad and the Beautiful, Singin' in the Rain, Contempt, 8 1/2, Day for Night, The Player and Get Shorty. The new film Irma Vep by French director Oliver Assayas may be proudly added to that list.

The film is about a middle-aged, frumpy, arty French director (Jean-Pierre Leaud) who wants to do a remake of Louis Feuillade's great 1915 silent-era serial Les Vampires (not about vampires, but about thieves in black body stockings). He has seen Hong Kong star Maggie Cheung in The Heroic Trio and has decided she's perfect for the lead role. Maggie plays herself and doesn't speak French, and the film crew doesn't speak Cantonese, so a lot of the film is in English. (Interestingly, Maggie's English comes with a kind of British accent.)

Maggie is fitted with a black rubber body stocking -- not dissimilar from Michelle Pfeiffer's in Batman Returns -- and the costume girl falls in love with her and takes her under her wing. Meanwhile, the director has a nervous breakdown, a wide-eyed journalist interviews Maggie and ends up talking about John Woo and the lead actor wants to practice his kissing scenes with Maggie. In a dream sequence (or maybe a sequence for the movie, or maybe a "real" sequence for Irma Vep) Maggie puts on her body suit, crawls into another hotel room, steals a diamond necklace, and throws it out on the balcony. The director disappears, a new one is chosen and Maggie is fired.

The movie ends by screening the footage that had been shot so far -- but altered with hand-drawn scratches and swirls and lightning bolts -- and it has an amazing and poignant effect. Film can capture so many things, reality, dreams, and ultimately, personal madness.

Irma Vep was shot on a low budget in just four weeks. It has a realistic documentary style; it's loose and funny and depressing and logical, but always engaging. Maggie Cheung proves herself a great star and a great actress (she set a record last year by winning her third Hong Kong Academy Award). With this, her first serious (non-action) role to be released in America, I hope she gets some attention here. Her next roles are in films by Wong Kar Wai (In the Mood for Love) and Wayne Wang (Chinese Box), so look for her.

A 2008 DVD release from Zeitgeist Video happily replaces the cheap, bare-bones edition from 1998. There's a kind of commentary track, which is actually an on-stage discussion with Assayas, recorded in 2007 at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley. Extras include 30 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage, with optional commentary track, a five-minute short film (Man Yuk: A Portrait of Maggie Cheung), rushes, the French trailer, and optional English or hearing impaired subtitles. The great liner notes booklet includes essays by Assayas (a former film critic) and American film critic Kent Jones.

A most welcome 2021 Criterion Collection Blu-ray release has emerged. Its 2K restoration was approved by Assayas and includes a 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio track. A couple of the bonuses from the 2008 DVD are carried over, and there is also a new interview with Assayas; a documentary on Musidora, who played the role of Irma Vep in the original Les Vampires; the sixth episode of that serial (which is a masterpiece, worth seeing in its entirety), and an address on the state of cinema by Assayas from June of 2020. The liner notes booklet includes an essay by critic Aliza Ma. This is highly recommended.

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