Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep begins with a jolt. An office whirs and buzzes with talk of budgets, location scouting, and audition tapes. Immediately, the audience plunges into a meta-narrative with various Hollywood tropes. This continuous opening shot makes its rounds about the office before resting on Maggie Cheung, who plays herself. She is the perfect subversion of the French ingénue. She is an established actress while maintaining an innocent quality. She is young but mature beyond her years. As the narrative in the film reminds us over and over again: Maggie is from Hong Kong, much to the dismay of the obstinate traditionalists working on the movie who would have preferred a true French starlet.
As she stands at the center of the production office, Maggie looks around coquettishly, trying to offer an apology for arriving late even though everyone around her seems to have stopped sticking to schedule a long time ago. Indeed, at a glance, it is difficult to tell that Cheung is our protagonist. Despite the fact that she’s been cast as the lead in the film within the film to be shot by director René Vidal played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, the other characters treat her with a skepticism and coldness foreign to the stereotypical, beloved French ingénue. However, Cheung’s rendition of her character effectively tosses aside the notion of a dainty and wistful woman objectified by all those around her.
In fact, rather than reiterating the typical heterosexual onscreen romance, Cheung’s costume designer Zoé, played by a charismatic Natalie Richard, is the person most taken with her. Instead of playing into her ability to inspire romantic temptation, Cheung simply laughs and remains tight-lipped when made aware of Zoé’s interest. Through the tumult and chaos, Cheung’s reservations pulsate with believability—much like the subtlety of Kristen Stewart and Juliette Binoche’s characters in Assayas’s Personal Shopper (2016) and Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), respectively.
Although she escapes the superficial stereotypes of a femme fatale, Cheung is as striking as ever. The subtlety in her performance as herself is outmatched by only the strength she brings to the character, Irma Vep. She is the chosen star of Vidal’s remake of Les Vampires. However, Cheung’s command over Irma Vep is not necessarily caught on Vidal’s camera. It is caught in the moments after the cameras stop rolling. In one striking sequence, Cheung dons her black latex suit in the privacy of her hotel room and inexplicably and effortlessly lurks through the dim halls of her hotel just as the character Irma Vep would. She prances through the halls with the confidence of an expert criminal as the non-diegetic sounds of “Tunic (Song For Karen),” by Sonic Youth blasts. As Cheung makes her moves through the hotel, breaking, entering, and stealing jewels we see a grace that she never offers to her director, Vidal. The power of Cheung’s performance lies in this interstitial sequence where the real and surreal elements of character blend together. As Cheung jumps about, silhouetted atop the Parisian roofscape, Assayas masterfully interlinks his meta-critique of French cinema and the more superficial entertainment of watching Cheung dominate the character of Irma Vep on screen.
At many points in the film, Assayas satirizes the contemporary French film set. For example, as the production team begins filming, Assayas captures the chaos and litany of errors that occur on set. Extras crack up laughing in the middle of takes as Vidal delivers Cheung a lecture about her character’s motivation that he doesn’t seem to believe in. All the while, Cheung nonchalantly puffs a cigarette between takes through the mouth hole in her black mask.
Through his film, Assayas develops a serious dialogue about end of the glory days of the French New Wave. He employs the character of René Vidal as a parody of a stalwart New Wave director who has fallen from grace. Vidal does not even try to take any directorial risks, but instead decides to do a remake while clinging onto the last drudges of New Wave filmmaking. At every turn, the side characters in Irma Vep bemoan the death of the New Wave and the regressive tendency for French filmmakers to tell apolitical stories, attempting to sell out the big box studio system and appeal to Hollywood audiences. But Assayas effectively pushes back against this negative trend he proposes in his film by creating his film, Irma Vep. At every turn, Irma Vep subverts, confuses, and tangles the traditional notion of the French New Wave and firmly roots itself in a post-new wave genre, ripe with commentary as well as originality.