At its best, Olivier Assayas’s film, Irma Vep (an anagram of Vampire) is rather difficult for an American audience, unfamiliar with the classic French silent film Les Vampires by Louis Feuillade (1915), to understand, since so much of it depends on playing off that kind of innocence, but the appallingly poor English pronunciation of Jean Pierre Léaud as the washed up director, René Vidal, makes the difficult almost impossible. One of the few things you can make out that he says is when he asks an assistant of his English speaking star, the Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung, “I’m not sure she understands everything I say; do you think she does?” Well, not if she’s anything like me she doesn’t.
To make matters worse, it is a movie about making a movie, which is always an invitation to a director to be too arch and knowing, to indulge himself in narcissism and inside jokes and self-pity and other cinematic vices. It is a temptation that Assayas does not always resist, and the upshot of the whole thing seems to be a certain sympathy that we are meant to feel for poor René when he ends up in some kind of asylum while his film is finished by a rival with a completely different vision of what it is about.
The difference between the two versions, however, though we don’t see nearly enough of it to be sure, seems to me of some interest. There are two rival sorts of postmodernism at issue. René’s film was to internationalize a kind of French icon by bringing in a Chinese actress whose stock in trade is the exciting balletic grace of a Jackie Chan, and he is always insisting on a minimalist style of acting, while the rival, José Murano (Lou Castel) sees the Frenchness and the melodrama of the icon as being of the essence. Irma Vep is like Paris herself, or the Paris underworld. Like Arletty. The rival vision is thus more political, and, as we cannot quite believe that he can bring this figure to the screen with the innocence and freshness of her prototype from 1915, there is some presumably campy, satirical version in store, if only we were allowed to see it. The whole film could thus be seen as an allegory of French politics and culture, with the left (José) and right (René) seen as presenting us with equally unsavory alternatives, while the fading grandeur of the past merely continues to fade.
I am, perhaps, being oversubtle, but the narrative chaos of the thing invites some such attempt to make sense of it. And there are a number of slightly titillating ironies to it, most notably that the exponent of modernization and internationalization is himself infected with all the worst vices of the old French cinema, at least according to Maggie’s co-star, a young man who condemns René for being “unprofessional” in comparison with the remarkably efficient Japanese crew he worked with on an earlier film. Similarly, a journalist (Antoine Basler) who interviews Maggie disparages the Vidal oeuvre as “boring” nombrilistique (i.e. navel-gazing) and intended for “intellectual elites” while singing the praises of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jean-Claude Van Damme and John Woo. Meanwhile, the representative of French tradition, José, looks like a refugee from les evenements of 1968 and rather pathetically dated as only the avant garde can look.
All this is taking place against a subplot—which frequently threatens to take over as the main plot—involving a lesbian costumiere called Zoë (Nathalie Richard) with a crush on Maggie and her hesitant attempts to kindle some kind of romance. Apart from its providing the occasion for the straight Maggie’s comment on Zoë’s infatuation— “That’s desire; it’s OK; it’s what we make movies with”—I confess I have no idea what this is all about. Maggie is in a way the voice of reason, the only person René can speak to without anger, who walks away from the picture when René leaves it and who says to Zoë, “I understand René; it all makes sense to me.” But it is a little hard to take very seriously this woman in a rubber catwoman costume. “You want to touch her,” says Zoë; “she’s like a plastic toy.”