Like Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut before him, Olivier Assayas is a former Cahiers du Cinema critic who has gone on to direct. Hot property in France, his inventive and stylish new movie Irma Vep is a real gem and one of the best films about film-making since Truffaut’s Day for Night. Jean-Piere Leaud, Truffaut’s favourite actor, stars here as arthouse director Vidal, who sets out to remake Louis Feuillade’s legendary Les Vampires, a silent serial about jewel thieves featuring the super-criminal Irma Vep. Vidal’s wonderfully daft inspiration is to cast Hong Kong action-movie diva Maggie Cheung as a latex-clad Irma operating in contemporary Paris.
Cheung flies in to discover the film set in turmoil. Vidal has personal problems and despairs of ever realising his vision. He’s not helped much by his bickering crew members, one of whom is a persecuted wardrobe mistres who falls for Maggie. Despite the chaos and an almost total lack of French, Cheung responds to the decadent spirit of Irma Vep and, in the film’s most remarkable scene, embarks on a furtive jewel raid in her hotel.
Making a virtue of the small budget, Assayas shoots Irma Vep in the style of a documentary about the film-making process. There are some amusing and astute comments about the uncertain state of current French cinema. A TV journalsit interviewing a bemused Maggie attacks auteur directors like Vidal, claiming that what French cinema needs is the equivalent of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme movies. There is also the sad figure of Vidal himself, who ends up in an asylum and having to abandon his dream. He is replaced by another seemingly washed-up talent (played by Lou Castel, a former icon of cutting-edge European cinema), who rubbishes Vidal’s idea of using a Chinese actress as Irma Vep. Yet the film ends with a sort of vindication of Vidal’s mad creativity, as the footage he managed to shoot explodes on the screen in all its poetic glory.