Irma Vep (1996) ☆☆☆(3/4): One troubled movie production

Olivier Assayas’ 1996 film “Irma Vep”, which happens to be released in South Korean theaters in this week, baffles me in enjoyable ways. Mainly revolving around one very troubled movie production, its story freely and unpredictably flows from one interesting moment to another, and you may come to accept the avant-garde aspects of its finale once you go along with its free-wheeling storytelling approach.

At the beginning, the movie throws us right into the busy process of one movie production. As the first shooting day of their movie is approaching, everyone in its production team is hurriedly preparing for that, but their director is not available at present, and that makes them more nervous about their upcoming shooting period. After all, lots of things may go wrong at any point, and they are not even so sure about whether they can actually finish their shooting in the end.

When Maggie Cheung, who incidentally plays herself in the film, arrives, she is ready to do as much as possible as the lead actress, but she is as confused as many others around her. Their movie, which is the remake of Louis Feuillade’s classic silent film serial “Les Vampires” (1915–16), does not seem to fit to her that well, but the director, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, believes that she will bring some fresh modern touches to his movie. Although she still does not understand well what exactly her director wants her to do, Cheung starts to prepare for her role anyway, and we subsequently get a little amusing scene where she tries on a black latex suit for her character.

What follows next is a series of absurd moments as the production team struggles to shoot their film in one way or another. In case of shooting one particular key scene, they have to shoot it again and again without much success, and everyone on the set becomes more frustrated as time goes by. To make matters worse, the director seems to be lost in his own confusion, and, not so surprisingly, he eventually comes to lash out at his crew and cast members after they watch the rough cut of what they shot.

His cast and crew members are understandably not so amused to say the least. They naturally begin to worry whether their production will be soon shut down, but the mood becomes a bit brighter when many of them later have a little evening drinking party of their own. Cheung is also invited to this party, and she has some good time along with others although there is the considerable language barrier between her and others. Both they and she can speak English, but the conversations are mostly French, so she often seems isolated despite the vivacious atmosphere surrounding her.

The production takes another downturn as the director comes to have a big nervous breakdown. Without their director, the cast and crew members try to do as much as they can do for themselves, but there eventually comes a point where the production should be halted for a while, and then there comes some other director as a replacement. He is not much of a fan of Cheung, and, despite his reluctance, he already has his own artistic vision for this deeply problematic movie production.

Meanwhile, the movie has some little naughty fun with Cheung. At one point in the movie, she seems to lose herself into her character in private for no apparent reason, and that leads to a weird but amusing scene where she wears that black latex suit and then attempts a little heist of her own in a hotel she is staying. In addition, the movie also has her interviewed by a rather rude French journalist, and we get some laughs as she tries to respond to the journalist’s insensitive questions as politely as possible.

The movie eventually arrives at the finale which caught me off guard when I watched the film for the first time in last year. I am still scratching my head on how I should process and interpret what is presented during this daring moment, but it still leaves a striking impression on me at least, and I admire more whatever Assayas attempts to achieve here.

Furthermore, I also appreciate the game efforts from the main cast members of the film. Although she does not wear that black latex suit as much as I hoped, Cheung is interesting to watch thanks to her natural presence, and so are several main cast members around her. While Léaud, who has been always remembered for his frequent collaboration with François Truffaut, embodies well his character’s neurotic sides, Nathalie Richard has several moments to shine as the costume designer who happens to be quite interested in getting closer to Cheung, and I was also delighted by the brief appearances of Alex Descas and Arsinée Khanjian in the film (This is actually not so surprising, considering that Assayas worked on the initial story idea of his film with Claire Denis and Atom Egoyan).

In conclusion, “Irma Vep”, which was incidentally remade into the HBO miniseries by Assayas himself in last year, is an admirable piece of work, but I am not very enthusiastic about it unlike many others because I observed its creative moments from the distance instead of being ecstatic about them. Personally, I prefer Assayas’ subsequent films such as “Clouds of Sils Maria” (2014) and “Personal Shopper” (2016), but “Irma Vep” is still recommendable for its distinctive qualities, and I think you should check it out someday – especially if you are ready for something challenging and interesting.

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