BluRay/DVD Reviews

IRMA VEP

By • Jan 9th, 2009 •

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Like Mick Jagger in FITZCARRALDO, or like Barbara Steele in THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU, Maggie Cheung vanishes from the production of IRMA VEP (the film within the film) and we are left imagining that when the replacement director finishes it, no one will even suspect that she had once been its star, or that footage of her was actually shot. Such is the transitory nature of the industry of celluloid, and such is the clever approach of director Olivier Assayas, to paint a picture of film production as chaotic, evolving, as harsh and predatory as a one-celled organism, foraging, killing, absorbing and growing without reason. It ranks alongside DAY FOR NIGHT or LIVING IN OBLIVION as a truthful, ensemble portrait of the independent filmmaking process.

I’ve made indie feature films, several times. There’s a reason why such film projects are best encapsulated by an LCC rather than by other types of legal entities. It’s because film productions are shape-shifters. They are like watercolor. They are, at their best, what Chaplin described as ‘the magic between the frames.’ But they do not end up on film or video the way they were laid out on paper by the producers earlier on in development and pre-production when they were foraging for funding. When all those talented, eccentric, pressured people get thrown together, even with one supposed goal, everything that can go wrong will go wrong. The budget shifts, the fidelities shift, the vision mutates, the day-to-day creative process undergoes both subtle and dramatic changes. What comes out of it all…that magic between the frames…can be white magic (THE GODFATHER), or black magic (GODFATHER 3), even though much of the same talent remains involved. And the original budget and schedule…forget about it. With an LLC, the producers are protected from the wrath of irate investors when such circumstances inevitably occur.

This film is about that process. It starts in the costume department, where the wardrobe designer bad-mouths the director to Ms. Cheung, who has barely seen any of his work, and what she has seen was without Chinese or English sub-titles. She liked his work, but already the forces of (black) magic between the frames is working its spell on her.

Jean-Pierre Leaud plays the emotionally unbalanced director. He reminds one of a cross between film critic William Wolf and Marty Scorsese, with a little Truffaut thrown in. Leaud was a member of the ensemble cast in Truffaut’s 1974 DAY FOR NIGHT, so his presence brings a strong reverberation to the production.

Maggie Cheung as the friendly fish out of water, playing herself, gives a great performance. A well-intentioned team-player who witnesses the decimating effects of chaos on what was initially an enticing, experimental notion for a motion picture, she holds the Super 16mm camera’s attention at all times. She’s surrounded by fine backup from the rest of the cast, and from the sumptuous art direction, full of saturated, unusual colors, costumes and hair. And bursts of giddy, modern music. Not to mention, she has a beautiful English language speaking voice.

The screening of a rough cut of the footage shot so far in the ill-fated production, which climaxes the film, is a cross between the dada films of the early 20s and the experimental animation of Canadian pioneer Norman McLaren. Claude Duty gets title credit for the scratched print effects. It’s an enthralling missile lift-off into the end title sequence.

Zietgeist has done a fine job with the transfer and the collecting of supplements. A 20-page booklet inside has near stream-of-consciousness essays by the director about Ms. Cheung, who was not yet his squeeze at the time, and about LES VAMPIRES, the silent French epic by Louis Feuillade that IRMA VEP’s film within a film’s director has the vanity to attempt to remake. The commentary track that accompanies the film is good, provided you don’t expect it to be scene specific, which it isn’t. In fact, it isn’t even about the film (that commentary accompanies a short ‘making of’ featurette). It was recorded at an Assayas retrospective/residency in 2007 in LA.

The box is attractively designed, and alongside the well-written back cover blurb is a quote from John Powers of Vogue with which I agree wholeheartedly: it states that “Maggie Cheung has charm to burn…She’s one of the world’s great movie stars.” I also agree with the blurb itself, which calls the film a “supercool comic gem.” It is indeed, and quite a bit more.

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