Hong Kong action star Maggie Cheung agress to be in a fading French director's remake of the early classic Les Vampires. She's going to need everyounce of good grace she has to get her through a nightmare of a shoot.
It's not totally necessary to be au fait with French cinema history to appreciate Irma Vep, but it doesn't half help. But even if you haven't heard of the movie's inspiration, director Louis Feuillade, and his 1915-16 serial Les Vampires, there's still much here to enjoy.
This is the funniest in-joke at the expense of French film since Francois Truffaut's classic Day For Night in 1973. Leaud (who was also one of the stars of that film) plays a faded auteur who, having seen Maggie Cheung in a couple of Hong Kong action movies, casts her in the role of Irma Vep in his remake of Les Vampires for the sole reason that he fancies seeing her in a black latex bodysuit. However, with Leaud on the verge of a nervous breakdown and Cheung caught up in a feud between her lesbian dresser and a bitchy production manager, the shoot rapidly descends into chaos.
Playing herself without a hint of superstar swagger, Cheung is superb as she listens earnestly to a has-been director and a never-will-be actor in the hope of extending her art. Leaud also has fun lampooning the very filmmakers who gave him his start.
The prime target here are the auteurs of the New Wave, the one-time saviours of French film who are not as devoid of inspiration as the old guard they denounced in the late 1950s. But Assayas also pours scorn on the angry young critics of today, who see the slam-bam antics of Arnie and Jackie Chan as the only way forward.
Ultimately, Irma Vep doesn't quite have the courage of its convictions, but still provides plenty of scathing satire on the state of French cinema.