French writer-director Olivier Assayas' second feature Irma Vep is both a film-lover's film -- a movie about moviemaking punctuated by some sidelong pensées concerning the state of French cinema -- and a kinetic entertainment, fast-paced and glossed with hand-held immediacy.
Aging director René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud) has decided to do a remake of a famous silent film landmark, Louis Feuillade's Les Vampires (1915), a serial about a gang of jewel thieves which served as an inspiration for Fritz Lang's later Mabuse series, which in turn influenced the young Alfred Hitchcock. Vidal has decided that the central character in the film, a leather-suited femme fatale known as Irma Vep (an anagram of vampire) should be played by Hong Kong action movie star Maggie Cheung -- played here, quite winningly, by the real Ms. Cheung.
The film opens as she arrives at the headquarters of the bustling but seemingly unfocused French set. At the center of this confusion sits Vidal, once an active beneficiary of the great French New Wave film revolution of the '60s, now a slouching husk of a man, grappling for the raison d'être behind his latest project. The more he tries to explain to Cheung his vision of a remade Les Vampires, and why he has imported her to be its centerpiece, the less sense he makes. As he lugubriously offers his half-baked insights between lapses into an enigmatic silence, we soon realize that this enterprise is doomed.
But Vidal's folly is up and running and we have a ways to go before things fall apart. Cheung gives a charmingly naturalistic performance as an outsider thrust into a strange milieu (she speaks no French), not quite sure why she's there, but determined to bring all her professionalism to bear on her dubious task. Léaud, who has been a staple of vanguard French cinema since his debut as the young lead in Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959), is brilliant as Vidal, the artiste on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
Also notable are Nathalie Richard as the feisty wardrobe mistress who develops a crush on Cheung, and Antoine Basler as a humorously obnoxious film journalist who tries to browbeat the actress into agreeing that French "intellectual" cinema sucks and what the world really needs is more Jean-Claude Van Damme films.
Assayas has created a piece that works on many levels, and while cineastes will delight in its filmic references, anyone with a taste for original entertainment will find much here that satisfies.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].