Critics and audiences outside France have been going on for so long about the decline of French cinema that it's fun to see a French film -- Irma Vep -- that says much the same thing. The rap is, of course, somewhat unfair -- most raps are -- but there's no question that even the best of recent French cinema, at least what we're able to see in the United States, can't hold a candle to the great early work of Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut, Bertrand Blier, and Robert Bresson.
Olivier Assayas, the director of Irma Vep, is aware of how precious and vague French films have become; he's a former film critic, and it must be obvious to him how many recent French movies seem to be made only for critics to burble about. Yet surely the worst thing about French cinema now is not pointy-headed entertainer-aesthetes such as Assayas but rather slicksters such as Luc Besson. At least Assayas is questioning the nature of what films should be; Besson, with his hyped-up Hollywood gimcrackery (cf. 1997's The Fifth Element), is already at a dead end.
Irma Vep -- a film about the making of a film -- is being talked about as the Day for Night (1973) of the Nineties, but it doesn't have that film's hushed reverence for the sheer act of moviemaking. Truffaut, who made Day for Night, was enamored of the magic of the process. So is Assayas, but he's less gaga about it.
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Some of the magic creeps in anyway. Jean-Pierre Leaud, the star-alter ego of so many of Truffaut's films, including Day for Night, plays a dissolute film director who rouses himself to direct a remake of Louis Feuillade's famous silent serial Les Vampires (191516), a dreamlike gangster fantasia that features the actress Musidora as villainess Irma Vep (an anagram of vampire). In Leaud's new version, Irma is played by Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung, for reasons that appear obscure to everyone connected to the movie, but not to us -- in her shiny leather body suits, Cheung is a ravenously exotic image.
Leaud tells her, "Irma is an object; there is nothing for you to act." And he's right -- sort of. Cheung, who has appeared in more than 75 films since 1984, including some of Jackie Chan's finest, is very good at playing Maggie Cheung. That's who her character is here, and the self-referencing doesn't seem coy. If anything, it's a bit mysterious: We're watching a film within a film about an actress within an actress.
Assayas captures what it's like to be on a movie crew: the camaraderie and bleariness and manic highs and infighting. He develops a remarkably touching and allusive friendship between Cheung and the film's costumer -- played by Nathalie Richard -- a lesbian who appears too smitten to act rashly. Assayas keeps everything swirling. Even if you don't buy into all of his life-as-art and art-as-life games -- and I don't -- it's still possible to be charmed by them. Irma Vep is very serious about not taking itself very seriously.
Written and directed by Olivier Assayas. Starring Jean-Pierre Leaud, Maggie Cheung, and Nathalie Richard. Starts Friday and runs through February 5 at Alliance Cinema, 927 Lincoln Rd., Suite 119, Miami Beach, 305-531-8504.