Maggie Cheung (as herself) has signed up to star in a new production of the classic French serial Les Vampires, but when she arrives at the company's offices she's already a week late thanks to the film she was making in Hong Kong running over schedule. Even when she does show up, nobody seems very sure what is going on anyway, and she is somewhat lost as she does not speak the language quite as well as she would like, relying on those around her talking English to her. But she does know she's meant to be playing the superthief and adventuress Irma Vep - isn't she?
Writer and director Olivier Assayas had been making movies for about fifteen years before this, but Irma Vep was the work which truly won him international attention, mainly thanks to his choice of leading lady. Cheung was celebrated as one of cinema's great beauties, but unless you were an adherent of Hong Kong films you might not have recognised her, so this introduced the star to a whole new audience of film viewers who might not have considered, as Jean-Pierre Léaud's past his prime though still idealistic director does here, watching The Heroic Trio.
But Léaud's René Vidal does see her in that, perhaps just as Assayas did, and thought "There's our Irma!", leading not to a success in the climate of the film within a film, but one which casts a spell, not only over the audience watching it but over the characters as well. You had to accept that Cheung was in some way magical, and everyone here enchanted with her to some extent, from Vidal to the costumer Zoé (Nathalie Richard) who dresses Maggie in her skintight latex catsuit for the Les Vampires remake, and becomes her friend for the duration. That much was clear, but what was not so obvious was the meaning of all this, and there were no shortage of opinions on what Assayas was getting at.
Was this a tribute to François Truffaut, or some scathing criticism of French cinema? Certainly the original Louis Feuillade serial was not intended solely for the intellectuals, but Assayas at times has characters complain that the movies from their homeland are far too rarefied to appeal to the masses, and that elitism is ruining the popular art. But did he really believe that, you may well wonder, as surely his own work here was part of that tradition? Actually, this was far more playful than it might first appear with its documentary style approach to make real what was assuredly artificial, and at points that artifice broke down to reveal the conceit of creating a film about creating a film and how the whole exercise was by necessity self-referential.
Take the most celebrated sequence, where Maggie gets back to her hotel late at night as the production is falling down around her ears, and dresses in her costume to do do what she's not being allowed to do during the shoot: actually become Irma Vep. She skulks around the corridors, hiding from passersby, until she creeps into a room and steals a necklace from a naked woman, then heads up to the roof in the rain... if anything is arty it's this, and the way it's presented as perhaps being all a dream only enforces that synthetic feel which the matter of fact framing belies. This was one of those artworks which endlessly obsesses over itself and its form, which would either captivate you or leave you wondering what the fuss was about. Fortunately, Cheung was able to work her magic simply by pretending to be herself, leaving this one of the most unusual pictures that a major star ever undertook, so even if you found this confounding or pretentious she was the reason you appreciated it, being the one unsullied presence in the story.
Of course Maggie had done arty Hong Kong films before this, e.g. Days of Being Wild, Actress and The Soong Sisters, but you are right this did put her on the international art-house map. She and Olivier Assayas were briefly an item after this film, leading some to suspect he dreamt the whole project up just to get close to her. Now why the heck didn't I think of that?
26 Jun 2011
They made another film together after this one called Clean, it's not supposed to be as good, though I believe Maggie sings in it.
28 Jun 2011
She does indeed, which may have had some influence on her decision to give up acting to become a film composer.