Olivier Assayas pays a scaled-down visit to territory akin to that of Francois Truffaut’s “Day for Night” in his uncharacteristically light new feature, “Irma Vep.” A slender but appealing divertissement about a has-been auteur attempting to remake the French silent classic “Les Vampires,” the film’s wry digs at the institution of Gallic art movies and at the anarchic confusion of the filmmaking process should amuse hip fest audiences. A once-respected director now hopelessly out of touch with commercial realities, Rene Vidal (Jean-Pierre Leaud) lures Hong Kong action star Maggie Cheung to Paris to star as Irma Vep, the sleek jewel thief of Louis Feuillade’s 1915-16 film serial “Les Vampires.” Becoming acquainted with production staffers and fellow cast members on the chaotic set, she soon finds that Rene is the object of general derision, but she remains committed to the director.
Getting fitted for a latex catsuit, Maggie is befriended by the film’s costumer, Zoe (Nathalie Richard), a lesbian and purported heroin dealer who soon develops a yen for the star. At a crew dinner, matchmaking Mireille (Bulle Ogier) attempts to thrust the girls together, shifting drolly from a subtle approach to absolute bluntness.
Following a disastrous screening of rushes, Rene storms out temperamentally, pronouncing the footage worthless. At home later, police are summoned during a fight with his wife, and a subsequent conversation with Maggie reveals his grasp of the project to be slipping. When he fails to show on the set, another over-the-hill auteur (Lou Castel) is taken off welfare to finish the film. Too much of a purist to see a French icon played by a Chinese actress, his first move is to replace Maggie. Little happens in terms of concrete events, but Assayas coaxes humor and moments of human insight from the fragile setup. A scene in which Zoe offers a thinly veiled invitation to Maggie, which she delicately refuses, is especially strong, recalling the director’s skill at getting under his characters’ skin in earlier pics like “L’eau froide” and “Paris s’eveille.”
French cinema takes a good-natured ribbing in the entertaining characterizations of Leaud and Castel, which are simultaneously understatements and caricatures, and in the asides of cast and crew bemoaning the negligible scope of the production. In one amusing seg, a journalist (Antoine Basler) talks up the merits of Jackie Chan, John Woo, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme while trashing the films of his Gauloise-puffing compatriots.
The only incongruous stretch — and the one that shows up the somewhat insubstantial nature of the film — is a pointless detour in which Cheung becomes obsessedwith her character and begins slinking around the hotel corridors in costume. The character-imprisoned-actor riff seems rather too obvious, and was perhaps included only to facilitate a scene in which Maggie/Irma slips into the room of a naked woman (Arsinee Khanjian) and steal her jewels while she quarrels with her lover on the phone.
While it’s not really a performance film, Richard’s naturalness is a constant pleasure, and graceful beauty Cheung is compelling, playing herself as a fish out of water capable of reacting to any situation with poise.
Scripted in 10 days and shot in less than a month, much of the film feels improvised. Its docu-style looseness extends to Eric Gautier’s agile camera (the film was shot on Super 16 and blown up to 35mm) and editor Luc Barnier’s jumpy cutting.