Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Irma Vep

Ever been addicted to a movie that you've returned to over and over again? For me, that would be Irma Vep, which I've probably seen more times than any other film.

Irma Vep (1996), by Olivier Assayas, is one of the great movies about the making of a movie. In it, a burned-out New Wave veteran director, played by Truffaut icon Jean-Pierre Leaud, attempts to remake the classic 1915 French crime serial Les Vampires, with Hong Kong superstar Maggie Cheung playing the lead character, Irma Vep.

The movie most obviously recalls Truffaut's Day For Night, but it doesn't wear its romanticism on its sleeve as much as Day For Night does. Irma Vep's tone is much darker, much more night than day.

There are two movies hiding inside Irma Vep. One of them, which is easier to see, records the bustling business and petty back-biting on and off a movie set. The other, not-so-obvious component of Irma Vep, is about how wretched confusion and outright breakdown can sometimes lead, unexpectedly, to great art.

Olivier Assayas infuses Irma Vep with a thorough, thrilling global flavor. Maggie Cheung, who speaks perfect, British-accented English, is a Hong Kong action diva making a film in Paris. When a new director steps in to replace the emotionally unstable Leaud, he is played by Colombian-born actor Lou Castel, the unsavory film director in German filmmaker Fassbinder's Beware The Holy Whore.

Assayas has always had an unparalleled ear for pop music, and he peppers the soundtrack with marvelous sounds like alt-rock band Luna's cover of Serge Gainsbourg's "Bonnie & Clyde", Ry Cooder and Ali Farka Toure's Talking Timbuktu, and his perennial favorites Sonic Youth.

In the maelstrom of mercenary hijinks and crazy delusions which Irma Vep documents, the serene center is Maggie Cheung, who observes this madness with bemusement. Assayas films her with the attention and glow of a director clearly in love with his lead actress. [They were later married, briefly].