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Irma Vep

Irma Vep is a moderately recent French film directed by Olivier Assayas, starring Maggie Cheung as herself playing a woman in a tight latex catsuit for a remake of Les Vampires. It’s a love note to cinema; we have numerous close ups of Maggie (which, of course, are all beautiful) and many tight discussions centered around various aspects of cinematic technique, meaning, and French cinema in particular, which made me wish that I had seen some more typical French films to fully understand. But it’s not just about the details; it’s about the people who enjoy the details, what the details mean for them, and what it means for us to participate in their creation.

Maggie in the initial sequences of the film, looking less worn than she will later.

Maggie is thrown into a film production that is already behind schedule, and there’s no time to think about what’s going on; only time to get her costume ready and start filming as soon as possible. Zoe tries it on to confirm its quality, and then immediately filming begins.

Zoe tries on the mask for the first time, cigarette in hand.

Maggie looks around anxiously in costume.

And why shouldn’t this be the case? It’s just a job. But as the film progresses the reasoning behind why anyone is doing what they’re doing in the production environment starts being called into question, and the director starts losing control of both the film and himself. Maggie expresses early on that everything she’s been working on prior to the film has not exactly been stellar material, and that she wants to get away from that sort of rubbish.

Zoe looks to her left in the middle of conversation.

Maggie’s supporting character is Zoe, a bisexual costume designer that develops feelings for her shortly after their first meeting. The director René develops similar feelings, first expressed through a scene in which he shows Maggie tapes of her prior work and falls into tangents based on their quality and the quality and state of cinema.

"Cinema is not magic. It's a technique and a science," appears written on a whiteboard.

It is both easy to feel the same sorts of feelings René expresses and at times be alienated by his artistic intention, but Maggie implies that she understands his issues and goes on to defend his decisions and expressions. She is in a highly unstable position throughout the film, developing quickly in the same room as one of the directors she is coming to respect, but the drama created by Zoe tampers with her fragile development as well as some of the production of the remake.

Maggie leans her head against a wall, slightly attentively.

In what might be considered the climax of Maggie’s transitional period, she is carried away with the catsuit that she has been wearing almost constantly and decides to commit a small instance of theft, which she almost immediately disposes of.

A shot of a neckalace next to a sink in the dark.

The catsuit is a curse; it’s uncomfortable, it’s constraining, and quite simply it’s too attractive for anyone to understand that Maggie is a woman as opposed to a sex object. René’s issues with the way his Les Vampires is turning out drive him to want to drop the project altogether. He and Maggie have a brilliant discussion in which he admits that the suit is all there is left of the project, with no material to utilize it properly. They realize together that there is a glimmer of perfection in their collaboration, but neither has the knowledge or skill (perhaps care?) to bring it to fruition.

René sits watching his film, hands over his mouth in disappointment.

It’s a painful struggle to watch, although it may be that the interactions between the film production crew are at times of enough benefit to make the project worth it, as opposed to a waste of time as most of the crew sees it. Why would we want to remake this? It’s a trap, they say. And if we are going to utilize a black box method of observation, they’re absolutely right. But the film shows its viewers the inner workings of the core pieces of the project, and as such we can see that these people are progressing both forward and backward in their pursuits.

Zoe contemplates the situation between herself, her mother, and Maggie.

Unhappiness sprouts in many places as a result of the project - Zoe is rejected by Maggie, which brings back an old illegal substance habit. René ends up in a home, and while we never see him again Maggie’s opinion is that he was happy to escape the doomed production. Maggie defends René’s work when others criticize him, and seems to understand so-called “intellectual cinema,” as an interviewer puts it. “Selfish cinema.” There are plenty of different generalizations on film, and all are thrown about without much discussion, because everyone is too worn from the production’s taxing nature.

Maggie's face is shown in a mask.

The visuals of the film are satisfying the majority of the time, with close-up after close-up of Maggie’s face and body in the catsuit, and some handheld camera play during the film’s more intense emotional moments. The motion of the camera throughout is quite clever in more than a few shots, and throughout the film are sprinkled black and white images from both the current production, its original film, and independent films being made by supporting characters that all add to a very pleasing visual aesthetic. This is another film that I wish I could have seen properly projected.

Maggie looks to her right covered in blue light.

The acting is without problems throughout, and all of the most important characters are played in an extremely convincing manner. Maggie is reason enough to see Irma Vep, and anyone who enjoys film is probably going to find the dialog and aesthetic stimulating and playful, with just the right amount of thought put into the subject matter. The final moments contain a great edit of the final production that provides the perfect wrap.

Maggie's face is distorted.

An Irma Vep poster.

Rating: Worth Seeing