Friday, March 02, 2007


Musidora as Irma Vep, 1915

We were in the mood for a change of pace & so decided to watch Irma Vep, a 1996 French flick by Olivier Assayas starring the unlikely couple of Jean-Pierre Léaud and Maggie Cheung. Afterwards, Krishna characterized it as “completely French,” by which she meant obtuse, compelling & likeable all at once. I think her take is completely on target.

Léaud of course started out as the boy actor Francois Truffaut used as a surrogate for himself, starting with 400 Blows. Later Léaud became the protégé of Jean-Luc Godard, starring in such classics as Weekend, Masculine-Feminine, Le Chinoise & Pierrot Le Fou. Although he served for a time as an assistant director for both Truffaut & Godard, Léaud ended up primarily focusing on acting, continuing on in such films as Last Tango in Paris (where he refused to act on the same days of the week as Marlon Brando), 36 Fillette, even an uncredited role in the Cate Blanchett version of Elizabeth. Léaud is noted for his use of improvisation, indeed is often hired for this, and is known for mumbling his way through roles, something he does to good effect here as the director who is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And then some.

The Hong Kong-born but British-schooled Maggie Cheung, on the other hand, is a major Hong Kong action film star. With 84 films under her belt, the spokesperson for Hermes & Lux actually has appeared in two more films than Léaud, even tho he is 20 years her senior. Indeed, in the marketing of the film’s DVD in both France & the United Kingdom, Cheung is clearly given top billing. In the US, she & Léaud both have their name above the title.

This film is a version of what is by now a film type: the parodic insider view of the making of a motion picture. From to Ed Wood to Tristram Shandy to the documentary Lost in La Mancha, variations on this theme are so familiar that it requires a brilliant variation to make the genre stand up at all. In this regard, Assayas’ version has several things going for it. First, the lead actress plays herself, and seemingly does not speak French, which enables pretty much the rest of the cast to talk about her in her presence without her responding or reacting. Second, the premise is that Léaud’s character, a director in some serious decline, has been hired to remake the French film classic Les Vampires, a silent serial from 1915 starring the actress Musidora. Les Vampires, about a gang of jewel thieves, may be the first action film to star a woman: Irma Vep is literally an anagram of the word vampire. Third, there is a question in the plot of the film as to the level to which Cheung’s preparation of her role goes beyond the usual bounds of method acting. Fourth, when Léaud’s character goes entirely around the bend & has to be replaced, the new director – whose one demand is that they fire the Chinese actress – sees Léaud’s work, edited in progress, only to discover that Léaud has hand altered virtually every frame, giving this remake of the familiar 1915 fare (which we see more than once) a shocking, pseudo-avant garde climax.

Made in a month’s time after Assayas met Cheung at a film festival, Vep is a study in the ways in which film-making’s situation as a collaboration under capital alienates all of its workers. This is worth thinking about given the number of new corporate gurus, starting with In Search of Excellence author Tom Peters, love to use the trope of the film production team as a model for next-generation business: specialists coming together for a set and limited time to create a specific product, then disappearing again into the night (without, dare we say, lasting benefits or any concept of the value of experience manifested through seniority). Just as Hollywood is a system in which the rare individual becomes Tom Hanks while everyone else waits on tables, Irma Vep shows pretty much everyone under stress & deeply isolated. At the end of the day’s shoot, Cheung, speaking no French & not knowing her way around Paris, finds herself abandoned on the set save for the costume designer who escorts the actress to dinner with some of her friends (who in turn try to set this up as a sexual seduction). She is asked, more than once during the film, what Hong Kong audiences think of French cinema, having to confess each time that Hong Kong audiences never get to see French films. So the constant back-biting among the film crew, which is genuinely vicious and undercuts the film’s marketing as a comedy, is in this sense an expression of the film’s primary theme: an ideal cinema is impossible under capital.

This is reinforced in the one interview Cheung gives while on the set, with a French journalist who can’t stop yattering about how bad French films are, made by intellectuals for an elite through government subsidies, so unlike the “great” American “directors,” Schwarzenegger & Van Damme. When the new director, played by Lou Castel (and given a Spanish name, José Mirano), arrives, his motivation for taking on the project has much to do with the fact that his welfare is running out.

There are other layers worth noting here, including the discussions of costumes and Cheung’s figure, particularly when contrasted with the fuller figure of Musidora in the role in 1915. Assayas has done a remarkably good job of bringing together a lot of interesting, intellectually crunchy ideas, into a film that easily could have collapsed into predictability but instead offers itself instead as the most bittersweet of comedies.


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