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Film / Irma Vep

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René: You are mysterious like Irma Vep. You are beautiful like Irma Vep. And also, you are magic like her. And also, you are very strong. And it's very important you are modern. I want a modern Irma Vep. You understand what I say?
Maggie: I think so.

Irma Vep is a 1996 film by Olivier Assayas. It 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 René Vidal, 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.

Fittingly for a film about shooting a remake, an American Mini Series remake of the film, also by Assayas, was announced for a June 2022 release on HBO Max. Alicia Vikander stars as Mira, the American actress tasked with playing Irma.

Compare Day for Night, another film about a movie and its Troubled Production that also starred Jean-Pierre Leaud.

Irma Vep contains examples of:

  • Actor Allusion: Mireille expresses an interest in purchasing Maggie's latex costume; she is played by Bulle Ogier, star of the notorious 1970s SM movie Maitresse, in which she herself spent a fair amount of onscreen time in rubber.
  • As Herself: Maggie Cheung, a professional Hong Kong actress in real life, plays professional Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung within the film.
  • Classy Cat-Burglar: Irma Vep herself is a beautiful and expressive woman in tight clothing who breaks into houses and steals stuff. Invoked by Maggie Cheung, the woman playing her, when she gets very into character for a night and stealthily manages to steal some jewels from a fellow hotel guest.
  • Contemplate Our Navels: Invoked. The journalist interviewing Maggie derides this era of French cinema as being all about pretentious navel-gazing, making it alienating to the general public.
    Journalist: It's typical of French cinema, you know? "Nombrilistic," you know. Nombril. Cinema about your nombril. Only to please yourself, not for the public. It's only for the intellectuals, you know. For the elite.
  • Corpsing: Maggie's co-star ruins over a dozen takes by breaking down into giggles every time another actor tries to put a mask on her, causing a frustrated Rene to call off shooting for the day.
  • Creator Breakdown: invoked Rene Vidal, the in-story director is frustrated with his washed-up career and how nobody else understands the movie he's trying to make. He has a nervous break in true independent filmmaker fashion and leaves the production.
  • Fanservice: A curvaceous nude woman on the telephone with her boyfriend. Maggie, also wearing a tight Spy Catsuit, creeps through her room.
  • Incompatible Orientation: Ambiguously. Zoe is bisexual and very attracted to Maggie, but Maggie gently turns her down when Zoe tries to take her to an implied gay club on her last night in Paris. However, during an earlier conversation in the film when Mireille asks Maggie if she likes girls, Maggie simply giggles awkwardly but doesn't answer one way or the other.
  • 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.
  • Fish out of Water: Maggie speaks no French at all and is bewildered by the loose, improvisational way Rene goes about shooting the film, coming from the much more organized and disciplined world of Hong Kong action cinema.
  • Malicious Slander: A rumor spreads on set that Zoe got Maggie drunk and had sex with her even though she just took Maggie back to her apartment to hang out with the rest of the crew because nobody remembered to call her a cab back to the hotel. Zoe is absolutely furious when she finds out, knowing that it could have serious consequences for her future in the industry. The rumor was spread by Rene's assistant, who clearly has an ax to grind with Zoe and has been attempting to get her kicked from the production for some time, believing her to be a drug addict.
  • The Muse: Maggie Cheung to the in-story director, as well as the real-life director.
  • The Napoleon: Rene's shorter than most of the people on his set and is a temperamental Prima Donna Director who causes an enormous amount of stress for his entire crew.
  • No Antagonist: The closest thing it has is Rene, who causes problems for everyone else with his perfectionism and lack of a clear vision for the film, but he gets hospitalized and disappears halfway through the runtime.
  • 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.
  • Questionable Casting: Vidal's replacement as director, Mirano, cannot fathom why Vidal cast an actress from Hong Kong to play an icon of the French underground and promptly recasts Cheung when he is handed the reins.invoked
  • 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 is about filming a remake of the silent film Les Vampires.
  • Significant Anagram: The movie replays the scene from Les Vampires where a character figures out that Irma Vep is an anagram for Vampire, the underground gang she is a member of.
  • Spy Catsuit: The tight latex catsuit worn by burglar Irma Vep. In-Universe, it is specifically inspired not only by the original outfit worn by Irma Vep but also by Michelle Pfeiffer's Catwoman costume from Batman Returns.
    Zoe: 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.
    • Maggie also dislikes Batman Returns, the movie that gave us Catwoman's Spy Catsuit. ("The first one was bad enough.")
    • To the American film industry: "I don't like American films. Everything is too much decoration, too much money."
  • Troubled Production: In-Universe, Rene Vidal's attempt at remaking Les Vampires is an unalloyed disaster from the jump. Constantly running under budget and behind schedule, his mercurial decision making process and lack of a clear vision for the finished product leaves his cast and crew frustrated and in a constant state of scrambling to meet his increasingly arcane demands. Ultimately, Rene drives himself to a nervous breakdown and is replaced by another director, who essentially has to restart from scratch since he recast the lead role and Rene left nothing usable to work with.
  • True Art Is Incomprehensible: In-universe. Nobody but the director Rene Vidal understands the point of the movie being made, and in the end, the only thing left of his involvement is a bunch of hastily edited and scratched rushes.