To Watch: Irma Vep (1996)
A film recommendation.
Title: Irma Vep
Written & Directed By: Olivier Assayas
Starring: Maggie Cheung, Jean-Pierre Léaud, Nathalie Richard
Runtime: 97 minutes
How to watch: HBO Max
In coming across a trailer for the upcoming HBO miniseries Irma Vep (starring Alicia Vikander), Alex and I decided to watch the original feature film version from 1996, directed by Olivier Assayas and starring Maggie Cheung.
Essentially, Irma Vep is a movie about making a movie. Famous Chinese actress, Maggie Cheung (playing herself), is hired to lead a remake of a French silent film titled Les Vampires, about a group of thieves led by the character Irma Vep (an anagram for ‘vampire’).
The film opens with Maggie arriving at a production office in shambles. Phones ring, a prop gun is passed around, and production personnel run around in a state of last-minute pre-production turmoil.
When Maggie walks through the doors, she is three days late. Her previous film ran behind schedule. She arrives an automatic outsider. She does not speak the French language and is considered by everyone involved as an odd choice for the role. However, in private, Maggie is told by the film’s director (played by Jean-Pierre Léaud) that her involvement was one of his conditions for agreeing to make the movie in the first place.
But as filming commences, everyone on the production tells her the director is washed up. He made good movies once upon a time, but no longer. Now he is shit.
Maggie maintains her faith—both in the project and the director—despite the production spiraling into further disarray as the film progresses.
In the end, we are left with a 3 minute payoff of cinematic gold.
To avoid spoiling the experience for anyone who has yet to see it, I will only add that this movie has left a lasting impression on me. If anything, Irma Vep is an honest, if not accurate, glimpse into the process of making a movie with limited resources.
In addition, its critiques of the French film industry during the time of filming Irma Vep apply equally the state of American cinema today. At the crux of this film is the question of why Les Vampires needed to be remade in the first place.
It does not require a keen eye to see the parallels with our current slate of films and television shows; and perhaps this explains why the HBO miniseries remake is about to hit our screens.
Personally, I will be most interested to hear what Olivier Assayas has to say about remaking a film that criticizes remakes. Smells like a sell out to me.
And because of this, I am honestly less inclined to watch the miniseries after having now seen the film. Why must we always go back and mess with a good thing?
Sure, I’ll still give it a go, but my hopes remain low.
I’m team Maggie Cheung, baby.
My rating: 10/10
Have you seen Irma Vep? Let me know your thoughts in the comments, and if you are excited for the HBO miniseries or not.