Comedy Oddities: Irma Vep

irma vep indexDirector Olivier Assayas is currently working on turning his 1996 comedy drama in to a tv series, though without star (and ex-wife) Maggie Cheung as she gave up acting a decade ago. The tv series will definitely be lesser off without her as she’s stunning in the movie, playing a version of herself who is hired to appear in a French film after the director supposedly saw her in a tacky martial arts movie and was enchanted by her, but it’ll need to have a lot more to say if it’s to take this material and stretch it over several more hours.

It’s a mixture of celebration and satire on the ways of the French film industry, with director Rene Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud) pointlessly remaking a classic old silent film, Les Vampires, but the people working on the movie suggest he may have lost his way and his best work is behind him. The film shoot is enormously disorganised, running behind schedule, tensions run high between the cast and crew, and Rene is deeply unhappy with everything that has been filmed. There’s also the possibility of romance between costume designer Zoe (Nathalie Richard) and star Maggie Cheung, but otherwise it’s a very slight piece as we follow the shooting of the film, and a number of scenes pay homage to the work of others.

The best part of the film are when we witness the cast and crew working on the film together, and struggle to find any kind of meaning in it, but there’s also a fair few quite naturalistic parts like a freewheeling dinner party where various characters chat, and the crew bitch about each other and rumours and gossip spread, but it feels rather inconsequential and ultimately it doesn’t have a huge amount to say, and the things it does suggest about these people isn’t exactly mind blowing.

Zoe and Maggie’s eventual non-relationship seems to be the main narrative of the film, that and Rene and his wish to make something of value again, even though he doesn’t seem to know what that might be, but despite a very winning cast and a superb central performance from Maggie Cheung much of the satire is fairly blunt. In one scene Maggie is interviewed by a journalist who seems sick of French intellectual cinema and longs for the masculine violence of John Woo and Schwarzenegger, but given his examples it’s hard to agree with him, and the way he’s mocked is only vaguely amusing.

Individual scenes work, but the majority of the time when we’re away from the set or the production offices it becomes a far less interesting affair, eventually limping to a fairly unsatisfying ending. This was applauded at Cannes when it was released, with critics declaring it a fascinating exploration of art, but unfortunately I didn’t feel the same way and by the end was glad when it came to an end.

★★3/4

Alex Finch.
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