Irma Vep (1996): Olivier Assayas’ Self-Reflexive, Playful Satire, Starring Maggie Cheung

Written and directed by the gifted French critic-filmmaker Olivier Assayas, “Irma Vep” is a light, playful, self-reflexive satire that would be appreciated the most by viewers aware of film history.

The point of reference of “Irma Vep,” a movie about movies, is Francois Truffaut’s 1974 Oscar-winning “Day for Night,” but it also draws on other autobiographical works by other major directors (Fellini), and on film history, both the silent and the sound eras.

There are no sacred cows in the picture, which targets French art films, while poking fun at the very process of filmmaking, with all its incidents and accidents, chaos and melodramas,, pretensions–and fun.

The protagonist is a has-been French filmmaker Rene Vidal, and the fact that he is played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, Truffaut’s alter-ego in half a dozen films (including “The 400 Blows”), makes the allusions to the late New Wave director all the more explicit. In an attempt to reinvigorate his career, Vidal decides to remake “Les Vampires,” the classic silent serial of 1915 by Louis Feuillade, featuring the adventures of jewel thief Irma Vep.

The once-respected director now out of touch with realities, Rene Vidal lures Hong Kong action star Maggie Cheung to Paris to star as Irma Vep, the sleek jewel thief. Playing herself, in a role expressly written for her by Assayas (then her husband), Maggie Cheung is perfectly cast.

Upon arrival on the set, Maggie realizes that Vidal is despised by both crew and cast, but she remains committed to him and his project.

After a disastrous showing of the dailies, Vidal storms out and declares that the footage is worthless. At home later, police are summoned during a fight with his wife. When he fails to show on the set, another over-the-hill director (Lou Castel) is brought in to finish the film.  A pompous “purist,” he is upset to see a French icon played by a Chinese actress, so he tries to replace Maggie.

There is not much plot to speak, but humorous and satirical moments are consistently interspersed into the slender narrative.  We observe how fitted for a latex catsuit, Maggie, a fish out of water who doesn’t speak French, is befriended by the film’s costume designer, Zoe (Nathalie Richard), a lesbian and heroin dealer smitten by the exotic star.

In another amusing scene, a Gallic journalist (Antoine Basler) praises the artistry of Jackie Chan, John Woo, Schwarzenegger and Van Damme, while putting down the work of more respected French auteurs.

Cheung becomes so immersed (obsessed may be a better word) with her character that she begins wearing her costume the whole time. As such, Maggie slips into the room of a naked woman (Arsinee Khanjian) and steal her jewels, while the latter is on the phone.

The graceful beauty Maggie Cheung, a beautiful, gracefully moving actress, is well cast as a fish out of water, endlessly adjustable thespian, capable of reacting to any situation with resourcefulness and humor.

Shot on a small budget, the film feels fresh and spontaneous, a result of improvisation. The loose yet dynamic visual style is courtesy of lenser Eric Gautier and editor Luc Barnier.

By all counts, and in the broader context of Assayas’ work, “Irma Vep” is a minor film, but it’s smart, unpretentious, and enjoyable.

(English and French dialogue)


Dacia Films production.
Produced by Georges Benayoun. Executive producer, Francoise Guglielmi.
Directed, written by Olivier Assayas.


Maggie Cheung – Herself
Rene Vidal – Jean-Pierre Leaud
Zoe – Nathalie Richard
Journalist – Antoine Basler
Laure – Nathalie Boutefeu
Mireille – Bulle Ogier
Jose Murano – Lou Castel
American Woman – Arsinee Khanjian
Desormeaux – Alex Descas
Maite – Dominique Faysse
Markus – Bernard Nissile
Ferdinand/Moreno – Olivier Torres

Camera: Eric Gautier.
Editor: Luc Barnier.
Art direction: Francois-Renaud Labarthe.
Costume design: Francoise Clavel, Jessica Doyle.
Sound: Philippe Richard.

Cannes Film Festival 1996 (Un Certain Regard),