The other night I watched Irma Vep by French auteur Olivier Assayas starring Maggie Cheung. It is a film about the making of a film. Jean-Pierre Léaud plays a director having a nervous breakdown while remaking a silent French classic Les Vampires, he wants Maggie Cheung to play Irma Vep (Vampire) and she stars in this film as herself.
This is the second time I have seen this film, having first watched it on original release in 1996, and I was interested to note it being described as a satire on ‘intellectual’ French film-making. I cannot recall that I knew that it was a satire when I originally saw it, but then I was a very serious film goer, I had given up mainstream films and was deeply into World Cinema and art-house films. It could be said that I was the intellectual navel-gazing snob that the interviewer in this film claims French cinema tried to attract.
When I got the opportunity to see this film again (on Sky Arts – surprisingly they show films as they are meant to be seen: without adverts) I was interested to see how I appreciated it now as to when I first saw it. Firstly I can see that it is a study of film-making, as I did originally, with most scenes set in the making of the film. Secondly I can see the satire in it that I missed the first time: the critique of the film-making process in France. But, thirdly, the way it is shot, which is very good, I now understand was the element of the film that prevented me from seeing it as a satire first time around: the fluid movements, the narrative structure which is like an essay on film-making, but in the end it is a film taking itself seriously about a film satirising films taking themselves seriously. Seriously! No wonder my young self couldn’t see the satire.
Finally though is Maggie Cheung: my vision of her remains faithful to her original incarnation back in 1996: beautiful, graceful and sublime. It is her presence in the film that questions who or what is really being satirised? She is a vision for the old and discredited auteur Rene Vidal, he sees her in a martial arts movie and wants her for his film on that basis alone: no need to audition, there is no script, he sees in her a natural Irma Vep.
He was right, Cheung is perfectly cast as a cat burglar in a cat suit, no need for words, movements and the pure image suffice. But he breaks down and is replaced by a new director who seems only to care that Irma Vep is played by a Chinese star and not a French star, the affront of it! Ultimately, for me, it is cynicism that is being satirised, the cynical who mock intelligent aspirations, and their cousins the stick-in-the-muds who only respect tradition and reject the visionaries.