Irma Vep

Olivier Assayas wrote and directed this dark, brittle French comedy (1996), most of it in English, about a film company shooting a remake of Louis Feuillade’s silent Les vampires. An unexpected masterpiece, Irma Vep was assembled so quickly that it has an improvisational feel and a surrealist capacity to access its own unconscious–two sterling traits it shares with Feuillade’s 1916 serial. A once-prestigious French director of the 60s (Jean-Pierre Leaud) casts a Hong Kong star (Maggie Cheung) in the role of head villainess Irma Vep (an anagram for “vampire”), and his sexual infatuation with the actress is matched by that of the costume designer who escorts her around Paris (Jacques Rivette regular Nathalie Richard). The feverish pace of the shooting seems to unleash everybody’s bad vibes as well as their desire, and Assayas follows the delirium as if he were at the center of a hurricane. What emerges is not only a memorable look at contemporary life in general (and international low-budget filmmaking in particular), but also a mysterious set of notations on how Feuillade’s hallucinatory masterwork might be translated into modern terms. An absolute must-see; with Lou Castel and Bulle Ogier. Film Center, Art Institute, Columbus Drive at Jackson, Tuesday, August 12, 6:00 and 8:00, 312-443-3737. –Jonathan Rosenbaum

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.