Why I love Maggie Cheung’s performance in Irma Vep

As costume designer Zoe (Natalie Richard) tells Cheung, “I don’t like American films. Life has a funny way of imitating art. He removes Cheung from the starring role and casts a French actor named Laure (Nathalie Boutefeu) as Irma Vep. In real life, the actor would later garner international critical acclaim in future roles such as In the Mood for Love and Clean. Sonic Youth’s ‘Tunic (Song for Karen)’ foreshadows a rebellious and subversive act: “Goodbye Hollywood,” Kim Gordon sings, as Cheung finds herself in Irma Vep’s clothes, prowling the halls and stalking the hotel staff and guests. Published 15 May 2021

Share this As she’s zipped in, the transformation from Cheung to Irma Vep is nearly complete. After slinking away, she takes the loot to the roof and tosses it to the ground, literally taking meta-method acting to new heights. She finds herself in a film exec’s office where tensions are running high: the camera follows a production team frantically trying to source funding for Irma Vep. Share this


Sabrina Cooper

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A number of pleasant exceptions emerge throughout Olivier Assayas’ 1996 film, Irma Vep. How could anyone else be Irma Vep other than Maggie Cheung? Where does Cheung end and Irma Vep begin? First and foremost, Chinese actor Maggie Cheung stands out as the central character – playing herself – in the French production of a film within a film. All the while, Zoe’s affection for Cheung grows. For what?” As the self-styled auteur Vidal, Leaud personifies the French New Wave. This is further evidenced in the sex shop scene where Zoe fits Cheung for her skin-tight latex suit (inspired by Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman costume in Batman Returns). Meanwhile, Cheung is an outsider who barely speaks French, adding unconventional charm to this playful plot. To witness an Asian star carrying the weight of the title character spoke volumes back then considering the reality of today: Asian actors represent one per cent of Hollywood’s leading roles. As the three-day shoot gradually descends into chaos, she remains a picture of calmness as she rolls with the punches of the disgruntled crew. Back in her hotel, Cheung cuts a bored and lonely figure. After seeing her action films in Morocco, the director of the film, René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Leaud), casts Cheung as Irma Vep – an anagram of vampire – in a remake of the classic 1915 Louis Feiullade series, Les Vampires. Shortly after, Vidal has a nervous breakdown and is replaced by a decidedly more patriotic director, José Mirano (Lou Castel). Why I love Maggie Cheung’s performance in Irma Vep

Her role blurs the line between real life and fiction in Olivier Assayas’ love letter to the actress and filmmaking. Cheung leaves Paris to meet with Ridley Scott in New York. Too much money. “You can be Irma Vep because you have the grace,” he admits to her enthusiastically during their first meeting,   echoing a statement Assayas once made about Cheung: “[She is] an up-to-date version of an old-fashioned movie star.”
Indeed, Cheung straddles present and past seamlessly, mixing silent era poise with mid-’90s cool. It’s easy to see why: Irma Vep wouldn’t be what it is without Cheung, who slips perfectly into the character’s black bodysuit (more on that iconic look later). (This question equally applies to the upcoming eight-part TV remake starring Alicia Vikander.)
It doesn’t matter at this point. And this despite the disorder all around her: Zoe’s chain-smoking; conversations which aren’t translated for her; and constant fussing over the outfit. During this time, French cinema struggled to rediscover its identity amidst the force majeure of American movies. The story unfolds in Paris, where Cheung arrives later than expected and jet-lagged from Hong Kong. Cheung sneaks into another woman’s room and steals some jewellery that’s dangling from the bathroom sink. And, arguably, Irma Vep plays out like a dual valentine to French cinema and to Cheung herself – not only from Assayas, who was romantically involved with his lead during production, but also from the film itself, in which the fictional director and costume designer are both enamoured with Cheung. Too much decoration. But why?

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