Irma Vep Review

The Film

To an opinionated soul like myself, the worse thing about modern life is the oppressive desire to record every second of it for posterity. We seem so desperate to hold on to our experiences by capturing them on crappy camera phones and bad video, that we risk becoming a race that simply stops doing things because of the amount of time we spend watching ourselves. No occasion can't be ruined by blinding camera flashes, staged spontaneity and people acting up because the camera is on them. The most some poor fools hope for in terms of their dreams has become the status of reality TV star or Youtube hero, and all this self-regarding has squeezed out all the original drama, the artists and the believers from the zeitgeist. The supposed democracy of viewer participation or viral art is nothing more than lots and lots of people simply wanting to raise their own "hi mum" placard.

Watching ourselves watching has become dressed up as post-modernism or irony, or the removal of the supposed fourth wall which separates the proletarian viewer from the elite of telly people. Occasionally, the subject of this kind of TV or film is the glamorous world of performing and our cathode ray friend re-assures us that the coke and the sex of the glitterati is just the same as the swift fag or the hopeless flirt of us proles. But it isn't the same, is it. Artists and performers are richer, sexier and usually funnier than the rest of us and, truth be told, this fact resurrects the envy we feel and the schadenfreude we enjoy as the show-offs crash and burn.

Irma Vep looks at the people who make films, and it shows these people as vain, insecure and messed-up and occasionally brilliant. They are people working in a world of terrific uncertainty, where those who get things done fight those who want to do them better. More importantly, the film captures the different perspectives of all the individuals who work on a single venture and their surprising lack of control over that end product. Irma Vep is also about the differing motivations for making movies - the ones who want art and the ones who want commerce - and the differing experiences of those trying to get the thing done - those on a mission and those doing a job.

Assayas' film is a black comedy with few laughs and a deliberately fly on the wall feel to it. Our chief point of interest is the Chinese actress Maggie who finds herself lost in a culture that has little homogeneity, little agreement and little tolerance. Unable to communicate in the language of the crew, she tries to connect to what her ageing and unstable director insists on in terms of feeling her character rather than playing the fantasy. Unsurprisingly, the fantasy of film and the reality of her life blur in one wonderful sequence where she tries to be the cat burglar she plays by becoming a sleek sneak-thief for a night.
This one sequence apart, the rest of the story is about the mundanity of movies and a sense of a lost direction. The waiting around for the shot to be lit, the watching of rushes and the pointless aggravating interviews with ill informed journalists. This far from exotic world is fraught with problems, bitching and petty jealousies, and the men in charge seem at their wit's ends. The poor star can't trust anyone for fear of exploitation and finds herself out of a job despite her best efforts.

The anti-glamour and the nonsense of the business seem to destroy any sense of the magic of cinema, but, as I said above, any attempt to pretend these people's lives are as difficult as that depressed bloke working in your local co-op will never wash. Assayas seems to acknowledge this and finishes the film with the loopy director's first edit of his rushes, much as a magician revealing his re-assembled glamourous assistant, and the effect is quite special. The complete difference from what they have shot or imagined is clear in the whole crew's eyes and the real reason for making a film is reinforced with this startling transformation. If everything that has come before has been about the awkwardness and the shoddiness of the process, this edited sequence is about the transformative power of cinema surpassing the pettiness of the industry around it.

The whole cast perform in the same low key fashion, and Maggie Cheung manages movie star and ordinary human well showing extraordinary grace. Jean Pierre Leaud has a certain iconic lazy eyed charm, and Natalie Richard is excellent as the vulnerable wardrobe mistress just about holding herself together. In the end, Irma Vep is not really very deep or instructive, but it is entertaining in a way that modern self reflexive cinema seldom is.

The disc

Second Sight's disc comes with a nice haul of bonus features including two interviews. The first of these is with the two leading actresses and carried out mainly in French with English subs. Maggie Cheung talks about the challenge of working away from Hong Kong and playing herself. She reveals that her roles in Stanley Kwan's Center Stage and Johnny To's The Heroic Trio were direct inspirations for her casting here and her co-star heaps praise on her performance. the second interview features the director and Charles Tesson discussing their special edition of Cahiers du Cinema from 1984 when they concentrated on Asian cinema. Assayas draws a parallel between developing countries desire for independence with the example of Bruce Lee making his mark in Hollywood and moves on to discuss meeting Cheung and his desire to make a film that could show that French arthouse and Asian new wave could co-exist. Both Assayas and Tesson display their wealth of knowledge and draw solace from the initial poor reception of their efforts with the thought that posterity has borne them out. Completing the extras is a five minute silent piece of Maggie Cheung photographed by the director, and the trailer for the film.
The visual treatment of the movie is an anamorphic treatment which is presented here at about 1.62:1, pretty close to the OAR and not seeming cropped or squeezed. The image itself is far from perfect with some softness, lack of detail and a lack of vibrancy in both the colours and the contrast. The most noticeable issue is extensive grain which may prove distracting in the daytime sequences. The soundtrack is a solid if unspectacular stereo which seems in keeping with the largely prosaic action of the film, but the disc does have burnt in subs for the French dialogue on the feature and extras.


Listening to the director, it seems that he feels Irma Vep has far more depth than I have given it credit for, but even on my more superficial level it is an interesting movie about movies. This release is a disappointing transfer and treatment with great extras.

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