Critics and audiences outside France have been going on for so long about the decline in French cinema that it's fun to see a French film -- Irma Vep -- that says much the same thing. The rap is, of course, somewhat unfair (most raps are), but there's no question that even the best of recent French cinema, at least what we're able to see in America, can't hold a candle to the great early work of Godard, Truffaut, Blier, Bresson.
Olivier Assayas, the director of Irma Vep, is aware of how precious and vague French films have become; he's a former film critic, and it must be obvious to him how many of these movies seem to be made only for critics to burble about. Yet surely the worst thing about French film now is not pointy-headed entertainer-aesthetes such as Assayas but slicksters such as Luc Besson. Assayas at least is questioning the nature of what films should be; Besson, with his hyped-up Hollywood gimcrackery (see: The Fifth Element), is already at a dead end.
Irma Vep -- a film about the making of a film -- is being talked about as the Day for Night of the Nineties, but it doesn't have that film's hushed reverence for the sheer act of moviemaking. Truffaut was enamored of the magic of the process. So is Assayas, but he's less gaga about it.
Some of the magic creeps in anyway. Jean-Pierre Leaud, the star/alter ego of so many Truffaut films, including Day for Night, plays a dissolute film director who rouses himself to direct a remake of Louis Feuillade's famous silent serial Les Vampires, a dreamlike gangster fantasia featuring the actress Musidora as villainess Irma Vep (an anagram of vampire). In Leaud's new version, Irma is played by Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung, for reasons that appear obscure to everyone connected to the movie but not to us -- in her shiny leather body suits, Cheung is a ravishingly exotic image.
Leaud tells her, "Irma is an object; there is nothing for you to act," and he's right -- sort of. Cheung, who has appeared in more than 75 films since 1984, including some of Jackie Chan's finest (the Police Story films and Project A, Part II), is very good at playing Maggie Cheung. That's who her character is here, and the self-referencing doesn't seem coy. If anything it's a bit mysterious: We're watching a film within a film about an actress within an actress.
Assayas captures what it's like to be on a movie crew, the grueling camaraderie and bleariness and manic highs and infighting. He develops a remarkably touching and allusive friendship between Cheung and the film's costumer (played by Nathalie Richard), a lesbian who appears too smitten to act rashly. And Assayas keeps everything swirling. Even if you don't buy all of his life-as-art and art-as-life games -- and I don't -- it's still possible to be charmed by them. Irma Vep is very serious about not taking itself very seriously.
Written and directed by Olivier Assayas; with Jean-Pierre Leaud, Maggie Cheung, Lou Castel, and Nathalie Richard.