In recent years, French director Olivier Assayas has dabbled in a variety of genres: sweeping historical epic (Carlos, 2010), semi-autobiographical coming-of-age film (Something in the Air, 2013) and most recently a meta-textual backstage drama (Clouds of Sils Maria, 2014); and while all three demonstrate a desire to experiment, none are as thrillingly experimental (or accomplished) as Assayas’ 1996 film, Irma Vep.
The film stars Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung (playing herself) who finds herself at the centre of a disastrous remake of Louis Feuillade’s silent French classic Les Vampires, helmed by an aging French director (Jean-Pierre Léaud, of The 400 Blows fame). Over the course of the film, and without knowing a word of French, she becomes friends with the costume designer Zoe (Nathalie Richard) who develops a crush on her, is asked to comment on the state of modern French cinema, witnesses the director having a nervous breakdown and prowls around the hotel in her costume: a black skin-tight, latex catsuit.
As difficult to summarize as it is pleasurable, the film manages to be a chaotic backstage drama, a critique of (and love letter to) the French film industry at a time, and a post-modern ode to the possibilities of the cinematic medium. Discussing the film in such detail makes it sound pretentious, but what Assayas manages is the astounding feat of wrapping these cerebral, weighty ideas in a heady, inventive rush of pure cinematic fun. After all, how can a film that involves Maggie Cheung skulking about in a catsuit be boring?
Even a decade later, Irma Vep still plays out as distinctly avant-garde -- an unparalleled experimental achievement that is as thematically dense as it is fun to watch. The original poster quotes The Village Voice with two pithy words: “SUPER COOL.” We can’t help but agree.
Irma Vep can be found -- amongst many others -- in UBC's Videomatica collection. If you wish to take out a film from the collection, visit Koerner Library's circulation desk.