Irma Vep is a low-budget independent French movie with an Asian star about... shooting a low-budget independent French movie with an Asian star.
The story is about a contemporary attempt by a washed-out French director (played by former Nouvelle Vague actor Jean-Pierre Léaud) to shoot a remake of Les Vampires, a 1915 silent film serial by Louis Feuillade, depicting the adventures of a gang of thieves led by a Femme Fatale who went by the name of Irma Vep (anagram of Vampire). The movie is being made on a shoestring, the crew are a squabbling bunch and nothing goes right. In the middle of it all arrives the Asian star chosen for the lead role, Maggie Cheung—played by Maggie Cheung.
Maggie doesn't speak French and is quite surprised by the lack of organization, in stark contrast with the no-nonsense professionalism she's accustomed to from the Hong Kong movie scene. She nonetheless tries her best to follow the director's obscure instructions, and things begin to fall into place. Her part requires her to dress up in a fetish rubber bodysuit with built-in corset, which she develops a certain fascination for, and at one point puts it on to become a real-life cat burglar for a night.
However, just as it seemed that the movie could be finished in spite of everything, the director has a nervous breakdown and is replaced by another one, whose first decision is to remove Maggie Cheung from the cast. All that's left of the first director's work is a surrealistic montage of scratched rushes.
A real-life development that took place during the shooting of Irma Vep is that its director Olivier Assayas and Maggie Cheung started dating and got married soon afterwards. They later got divorced but have on another occasion worked together again on Clean.
Irma Vep contains examples of:
- As Herself: Maggie Cheung.
- Classy Cat-Burglar: Irma Vep herself, but also Maggie Cheung when she gets in character and turns into one for a night.
- Creator Breakdown: The in-story director has one, in true independent filmmaker fashion.
- Fanservice: A curvaceous nude woman on the telephone with her boyfriend. Maggie creeps through her room.
- Le Film Artistique: Squared, since Irma Vep is a self-aware Film Artistique about the making of a Film Artistique. On the other hand, the original serial Les Vampires wasn't a Film Artistique, but a pulp fiction-esque piece of popular entertainment.
- The Muse: Maggie Cheung to the in-story director, as well as the real-life director.
- Of Corset Hurts: Maggie's catsuit and its built-in corset. Her stunt double, also wearing the corset, gasps with pain and asks Maggie if she can breathe.
- Of Corsets Sexy: The aforementioned bodysuit features a built-in corset.
- The Remake: In-Universe, Rene is directing a remake of Les Vampires. Apparently it's close to a Shot-for-Shot Remake, at least in some scenes.
- Retraux: In-Universe, the remake of Les Vampires is a black-and-white silent film that looks just like the original.
- Shout-Out: The director in the movie says he was inspired to cast Maggie Cheung after seeing her in Heroic Trio.
- Show Within a Show: The movie within the movie.
- Significant Anagram: Irma Vep = Vampire.
- Spy Catsuit: The latex catsuit worn by Irma Vep. Zoe says "I say, it's like hooker, but if he wants hooker, that's OK."
- Take That!: The movie takes a side shot at film critics who disparage art-house French cinema.
- True Art Is Incomprehensible: In-universe. Nobody but the in-story director understands the point of the movie being made.