Irma Vep (1996)

This meta-cinematic, self-reflexive experiment by Assayas is one of his most fascinating films, featuring an alluring Maggie Cheung in latex. 

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Dir. Olivier Assayas
1996 | France | Drama | 99 mins | 1.66:1 | French & English
M18 (passed clean) for nudity

Cast: Maggie Cheung, Jean-Pierre Leaud, Nathalie Richard
Plot: A Chinese movie actress, in France to star in a remake of “Les Vampires”, finds petty intrigues and clashing egos on the set.

Awards: Won KNF Award (Rotterdam); Official Selection (Cannes)
International Sales: MK2

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate – Filmmaking, Identity, Self-Reflexivity
Narrative Style:  Slightly Complex
Pace: Normal
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse

Viewed: Screener
Spoilers: No

Maggie Cheung’s international breakthrough came in the form of a French film by Olivier Assayas called Irma Vep.  Assayas would later marry and divorce Cheung, and then work together again in Clean (2004), where the latter nabbed Best Actress at Cannes. 

Irma Vep is many films at once—it is about filmmaking, French arthouse cinema, Hong Kong action cinema, Maggie Cheung, remaking a silent classic, and an experimental film (quite literally so in the epilogue). Everything seems chaotic and jumbled up, just like the words ‘Irma Vep’, which is an anagram of ‘Vampire’. 

Cheung, playing some version of herself, is the (Chinese) star of a new French remake of ‘Les Vampires’, cast by a director who seems to have long lost his mojo.  She finds herself in a set full of clashing egos, yet because she is foreign, everyone is so hospitable to her. 

With Irma Vep, Assayas has made one of his most fascinating films, a meta-cinematic and self-reflexive engagement with not just cinema itself, but the alluring star at its centre. 

Cheung has never been this deconstructed or fantasised, with multiple ‘doublings’ that see her play herself playing a character in latex, and we haven’t even got to mentioning her body double. 

In the film’s most bewitchingly surreal sequence, we see Cheung in that same ‘Catwoman’ outfit roaming around, but there is no camera on her, except Assayas’, which raises plenty of questions about self-identity in relation to performance. 

The big question is: who is Cheung really performing for?  At a point when French cinema had threatened to go stale in the mid-1990s, Irma Vep was a much-needed shot in the arm. 

Grade: A-




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