Movies about movies are a dime a dozen these days, especially when three of the last five Oscar winners for Best Picture have centered on filmmaking. Understandably, many of these ultimately end up taking a stance or attitude that celebrates and valorizes the work done in the industry. (Otherwise, why make it – right?)
Olivier Assayas’ “Irma Vep,” on the other hand, is in a class of its own. The 1996 film plays like a backstage drama most commonly penned about the stage, but it highlights the inner workings and unglamorous minutiae of the collision of film art and commerce. There is far more discussion about international rights than talking through script mechanics, more trudging through the unglamorous technicalities of capturing image and sound than celebrating the magic of filmmaking.
Assayas does not resort to easy or obvious satire, either, that might lighten the blows he delivers. This pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” is a scalding but well-considered dramatization of the issues plaguing French, American and world cinema in the mid-1990s. This time period is one where the Nouvelle Vogue began to fade, the blockbuster era in America began to crowd out artistry and the globalization of cinema spread more anxieties than ideas. “Irma Vep” captures a moment in high definition with the kind of clarity that usually comes only when examining a period retroactively.
Perhaps the situation at the center of the film was helpful in achieving such sharp commentary. Actress Maggie Cheung, playing herself, arrives in Paris to film an oddly conceived remake of a vampire-centric silent film. The role seems an odd fit for the actress, who prior to the film – both in the world of the film and reality – had yet to star in anything outside of her native Hong Kong. But it proceeds on thanks to the folly of over-the-hill director René Vidal (a perfect meta-textually cast Jean-Pierre Leaud of “The 400 Blows” fame) to hostility from the hard-working crew. The misadventures that follow raise fascinating questions about the state of cinema, many of which we have still yet to collectively answer – to our own detriment.