Whether his work is always completely successful or not, Olivier Assayas is one of the most interesting film makers working today and his projects are engaging and memorable for their unique point of view and vitality. Irma Vep is probably his simplest work and one of my favorites.
In it, Hong Kong action star and dazzling charmer, Maggie Cheung is a stranger in Paris. Playing herself, she is cast in a French remake of the silent film classic Les Vampires. The film shines as an ode to movie making, but in a realistic way. Assayas is one of the few film makers who has a genuine interest in portraying creative working life as it really is. One could be forgiven for at first thinking this was a documentary, it balances a kinetic ballet of realism that reminds us of the best scenes from Altman movies, sans a major plot.
In fact, Irma Vep is rather aimless and subtle with not too much “happening” (in cinematic terms) but it’s never, ever boring – rather inspiring and exhilarating. From the off kilter and manically lovely costume designer, Zoe (played by Nathalie Richardson), to the fading, possibly insane and passionate director, Rene (played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, possibly channeling his one time director, Truffaut, whom he now resembles), you feel like you are watching the interactions of characters that are fully alive and real.
It’s visually striking and makes one sentimental about the transient, temporary and vibrant world of collaborative creative projects (especially if you’ve ever worked on a movie before). Irma Vep was released on Criterion Collection and is currently available on Netflix instant.