Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Hell is Other Movies: Irma Vep

A couple of years ago, we came close to running, over a nine week series, Louis Feuillade's 1915 serial Les Vampires about a gang of high-tech, proto-surrealist criminals terrorizing pre-war Paris.  Each night would have paired part of the serial with a feature (this was our "Liars, Cheats and Thieves" series, with Charade, L'Avventura and The Sting, among others).  We would then transition into the next series with Irma Vep, Olivier Assayas's 1996 film about an attempted remake of Feuillade's serial with Maggie Cheung (star of this week's In the Mood for Love) playing the starring role.  Alas, the cost of securing Les Vampires proved to be too great, so we abandoned the idea (and ended up running Singin' in the Rain to start the next series).  It's a shame, because running a 95 year old serial would have been cool in itself, but also because Les Vampires is one of the great works of silent cinema, with immeasurable influences not just in film but art in general.

It's also a shame because Irma Vep is a pretty great film in its own right.  An homage not just to Feuillade but also François Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard (whose Day for Night and Passion, respectively, it joins as one of the great French films about filmmaking), it's a scathing indictment of the 1990s French film industry.  New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Léaud plays the director who used to be great but now seems to be washed up who got the idea of casting Maggie Cheung in his film after seeing her in what appears to be Johnnie To's The Heroic Trio, a kind of Hong Kong version of Charlie's Angels.  Ms. Cheung shows up for the part, but doesn't speak any French and finds that none of the crew have any idea who she is (though she had, by this point, done amazing work in Wong Kar-wai's Days of Being Wild and Stanley Kwan's Centre Stage, as well as many a kung fu girlfriend role dating back more than a decade) and none of them can figure out why a Chinese woman would be playing such an iconic French part.

The provincialism and condescension of the French towards Cheung is part of Assayas's critique, as is its general cheapness and lack of professionalism.  The director has a nervous breakdown (he seems to have only the vaguest idea what he wants to do with the film), the costume designer (played by Nathalie Richard, seen in last year's Never Let Me Go) develops a crush on Cheung and tries to hook up with her, the line producer seemingly hates everyone (after Cheung oversleeps one day, she is interrogated mercilessly about whether she has a drug problem).  Even Cheung goes a little bit crazy, donning her skintight latex costume at night for some method training in sneaking into hotel rooms and stealing jewelry.

Unlike most every other film about filmmaking, including the Godard and Truffaut classics mentioned earlier, and also Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 and Tom DiCillo's great film from the year before about making an indie film in America, Living in Oblivion, Irma Vep doesn't really have a happy ending in which everyone experiences the transcendent joy of making cinema.  Instead, Léaud and Cheung are replaced and when the footage they shot is screened, it turns out to be a really cool-looking bit of avant-garde lettrism.  Turns out, the film they were making might have been great, but they couldn't even get it finished.  And there's nothing more depressing than an unfinished film.*

*Lots of things are more depressing than an unfinished film: war, famine, the fate of the Sonics, etc.

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