Movies We Like
"Cinema is not magic. It’s a technique and a science. A technique born of science and the service of a will. The will of the workers to free themselves." — Irma Vep
When you come from a culture that has accepted a standard of taste, how do you produce something radical? Irma Vep is the story of Rene Vidal (Jean-Pierre Leaud), a director who has fallen out of favor in French cinema. The film juxtaposes two stances of French cinematic taste: those who see old-fashioned and beautiful cinema to be superior, and those who detest the old and want to make room for the new. In attempts to revitalize his career, Rene decides to direct a silent re-make of Louis Feuillade’s silent film, Les Vampires (1915). In choosing a woman to play the film’s heroine, Irma Vep (an anagram for vampire), he wants to find someone with the grace of a feline and the edge of a thief, ultimately deciding not to use a French actress.
Maggie Cheung plays herself, a Chinese actress known for action films, and is the woman chosen to play the lead. Though met with some hostility for not choosing a French actress, Rene insists that she is the only one who can pull it off.
The film then bursts into a frenzy of mayhem as it exposes the behind-the-scenes chaos of a set where the director and everyone else involved in the film are working on something tangible that is way overdue.
Some of the best aspects of the movie come from the footage of Les Vampires and other silent films that are worked into the plot. Without that footage and an understanding for how influential and controversial they were at the time, it would be impossible to isolate the strengths of this movie and its message. The character in the silent, played by Musidora, is an early and fairly erotic icon. Looking at her costume alone and the effect she has on a certain group of men who consider themselves vampires, she’s almost like a dominatrix whose presence seems to be impossible to replicate, even in the abstract. But after seeing the footage and learning how much the director cares about the project, Cheung then throws herself into the character, both on set and at home. There are some awesome scenes where she dresses in her cat suit and sneaks around her hotel unnoticed.
Irma Vep is sort of referred to as a satire of the film industry, but someone in the industry might not find it to be satirical at all, but rather accurate. Cheung is flown into France for a few days for the shooting, but she doesn’t speak French, nor is she accustomed to the zany and heavily disorganized set that, according to the film’s comedy, happens to be the norm. Her chain smoking is also very amusing, as is the bizarre task of finding a cat suit in sex shops that can depict the "vision" of the director. Her wardrobe is done by Zoe (Nathalie Richard), who also wants to sleep with her, which accounts for some hilarious scenes where she’s next to Cheung telling others of her desire, knowing that she can’t understand what is being said.
With the comedy aside, the plot then advances to more serious points as the director views the progress of the film and hates it. He then has a sort of nervous breakdown and goes into a mysterious exile, later being replaced. But the ultimate payoff and the most important part of the film comes in the end. The new director chosen to take over for Rene sits down with the crew and is shown the hard work and grueling editing that was done by the director in just a few days. It is here that the crew discovers that Rene has defaced the images, transforming it into a bizarre avant-garde short that is unlike anything they ever thought he was capable of. His clean break from all of his previous works, aided by a loss of sanity, absolutely bulldozed his limitations and allowed something completely new. An artist, inspirationally speaking, should really see this film, or anyone who is curious about modern French cinema and the filmmaking process. Highly Recommended!