The idea of remaking Louis Feuillade’s legendary serial Les Vampires, with Hong Kong action star Maggie Cheung in the role of the catsuited thief Irma Vep, is brilliant. What a shame then that instead of really going for it, director Olivier Assayas decided to play it safe and opted for a film-within-the-film about the impossibility of such a project.
When Cheung, playing herself, arrives from Hong Kong to start shooting, she finds a production in disarray, a constantly bickering crew and a formerly revered director, René Vidal (played by veteran French actor Jean-Pierre Léaud), now losing the plot. When Vidal has a nervous breakdown and the filming of Les Vampires comes to a halt, Cheung is left to her own devices, alone and isolated in Paris.
A bittersweet comedy about the chaotic world of filmmaking, regularly punctuated by jabs at the state of modern French cinema, Irma Vep is at best vaguely entertaining, at worst irritatingly self-absorbed. The film is interspersed with footage from Les Vampires and when Vidal attempts to recreate a scene from the original, completely failing to capture its magic, it only serves to show off Assayas’ own impotence in the face of Feuillade’s creation.
Weighed down by too much reverence for the past, Assayas is incapable of breathing life and soul into his film. Flimsy, insubstantial and bloodless, Irma Vep feels like a wasted opportunity, and you can’t help but feel sorry for the great Maggie Cheung, who does her best to liven up the picture in her modern latex catsuit. The best part of the film comes at the very end, as the crew watch the only section of footage that Vidal has completed. With scratched, flickering images accompanied by strange noises on the soundtrack, it conveys the weirdness of the original and condenses it, removing the narrative to leave only fantasized images. If only Assayas had had the vision and courage to approach the whole film in this way then Irma Vep could really have been something.