IRMA VEP (Olivier Assayas, 1996)

“I like the silence in a silent movie. . . . You must respect the silence.”

The source of these two comments is René Vidal, whose career as a filmmaker has deteriorated—a reflection of a national phenomenon following May 1968: the disillusionment of France’s political Left. In truth, French cinema has always had its diversions (recall Philippe de Broca) and its police procedurals and thrillers; but no longer is French cinema providing guidance for world cinema—or France, for cutting-edge politics.
     On a shoestring, Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud, yet again brilliant—moody, combustible, hilarious, affecting) is currently remaking Feuillade’s 1915 serial Les vampires, with Hong Kong’s Maggie Cheung (playing herself), because he is infatuated with her, in the skin-tight cat-costumed role that Musidora originally played. Unhappily married, Vidal may be making movies now as a means of accessing his sexual fantasies. Indeed, the film’s whole crew seems to consist of inwardly drawn individuals. By contrast a costumed Cheung spies on guests and steals jewels at her Paris hotel in the spirit of her character, Irma Vep. She is reaching out, creating, living her own film. At another level, though, she is a mirage of autonomy who follows writer-director Olivier Assayas’s deft, postmodernist script.
     At one point rushes of the same-titled film-within-the-film take over the screen: black-and-white silent footage that exasperates Vidal. His film is falling short of his dream.
     Vidal’s nervous breakdown leads to his being replaced by José Mirano (Lou Castel, inviting memories of Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore, 1970, where the “whore” is Hollywood), who moves to replace Cheung with a French actress. Presumably Vidal’s friend, Mirano exhibits the treacherous, backstabbing tendency that afflicts nearly every character (although not Cheung): fallout from career disappointments, capitalistic career competitiveness, but folded into political disappointments.

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