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Sucking on the Movies

Irma Vep
Isabelle Weingarten

Vamping: Maggie Cheung takes her place in French film history in 'Irma Vep.'

'Irma Vep' unreels a film within a film about French film history

By Richard von Busack

WATCHING OLIVIER Assayas' Irma Vep is like having a perfect real-life encounter with a movie star. He or she is more beautiful than on screen--modest, smart, charming, seductive--and then vanishes out of your life before your illusions are dashed by any taint of human frailty. In Irma Vep, it is Maggie Cheung, familiar to Hong Kong cinema fans, who gives a remarkably warm performance as herself.

Cheung plays a bungee celebrity (in and out of Paris in about 72 hours) hired to star as the cat burglar Irma Vep in a doomed film project. The project is a remake of Louis Feuillade's 10-part silent-film serial Les Vampires (1915­16) about a gang of clever thieves led by the alluringly clad Vep. To appreciate the sheer redundancy of this idea, imagine Fascinating Eyes, the film within a film in Irma Vep, as a remake of Birth of a Nation. Feuillade's serial occupies as important as place in the history of French cinema as D.W. Griffith's epic does in ours.

There have been worthy real remakes of Feuillade's work (in 1963, Georges Franju did an enjoyable adaptation of his 1917 fantasy Judex), but the remake in Irma Vep is undertaken by a depressed, dispirited moviemaker named René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud, iconic star of many a François Truffaut film).

Vidal's sole moment of inspiration is the casting of Cheung, presumably because he saw her 1994 film The Heroic Trio. Truffaut once said that the difference between a French movie and an American movie is that on an American movie set, everyone hates the director. The rancor and spite on the set shown here are one more example of how much American and French movies are becoming alike.

Cheung arrives late in Paris because of last-minute work on a Hong Kong actioner. The one friendly member of the Parisian crew is Zoe (Nathalie Richard), a frowsy but cute costume designer who falls for Maggie after seeing her in her clingy vinyl outfit. (Part of the in-joke of the film within a film is how much Vidal wants Cheung to look like Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman.) Meanwhile, Cheung is absorbed into her androgynous role, and in what's possibly a dream sequence, she even burglarizes a hotel room, to the musical accompaniment of Sonic Youth's "Tunic."

More is going on in Irma Vep than just the simple story of a crush on a movie star. By being a movie about a remake, Irma Vep shows the state of entropy into which French film has sunk. The bankruptcy of ideas and the reliance on action of current French cinema are represented by a journalist (Antoine Basler) who loves Hong Kong film and only Hong Kong film. (Dealing politely with this ignoramus, Cheung demonstrates that signal quality about her that Assayas has cited in interviews: "the sovereign poise of a great star.")

Considering that Assayas' subject is the decline of a national art, it's an optimistic, delicate movie that endorses that process of falling in love with a face you see on screen. Cheung, stalking the corridors in cat suit and mask, is a new icon of the mystery inherent in filmmaking and film watching.

Irma Vep (Unrated; 97 min.), directed and written by Olivier Assayas, photographed by Eric Gautier and starring Maggie Cheung and Jean-Pierre Léaud.

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From the August 14-20, 1997 issue of Metro.

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