I have liked the Olivier Assayas films I have seen (Summer Hours, Personal Shopper), especially the mini-series Carlos. And I love Maggie Cheung (fave: the must-watch In the Mood for Love). And Assayas recently said he was writing an Irma Vep television series. Since I've long been intrigued by Irma Vep, I decided to watch the movie.
Right off, I was surprised. It's a French film, and it stars a top Hong Kong actress, so I was prepared for subtitles. Except Cheung plays "herself", and the real-life Maggie Cheung spent ten years of her childhood living in England and thus speaks perfect English. It is said by the French people in Irma Vep that the "Maggie" of the movie doesn't understand French (the real Maggie does speak French, and I guess it's unclear if maybe "Maggie" just pretends not to speak French). Cheung speaks only in English in the movie, and so whenever anyone else interacts with her, they speak English, and she's the star of the movie and in a lot of scenes, so ... suffice to say, Irma Vep has some subtitles, but much (most?) of the movie is actually in English.
All of which is probably irrelevant, except it's hard to avoid the complications of Maggie Cheung playing "Maggie Cheung". It's the real Maggie ... at one point, we see a brief scene of her in The Heroic Trio, as if to prove this. All of the characters react to "Maggie" as if she were real. Some don't seem to know her work, but many do, and while the actual Cheung hadn't quite become an international star (actually, Irma Vep was probably when this happened), she's already a cult figure to some of the characters.
It gets more complicated. The plot, or at least the story that drives the movie, is that a fading French director decides to remake the early silent French serial, Les Vampires, the main character of which is named Irma Vep. For reasons that are never explained, he demands that Maggie Cheung play Irma. So, you have Maggie Cheung playing Maggie Cheung in a movie, Irma Vep, that is a remake of a serial with a character named Irma Vep. The words "Irma Vep" thus have multiple meanings here: there's the title of the movie itself, there's the hero of the serial, and there's the character Cheung plays in the movie within a movie.
In obsessing over all of this, I am missing a lot of important things about Irma Vep. It's a commentary on the state of French film making at the time, and Jonathan Rosenbaum, in a excellent essay on the film, keeps bringing up capitalism. And the way the film is shot (Eric Gautier, cinematographer, but also Luc Barnier, editor) often feels like a Maysles Brothers documentary, which further blurs the line between Cheung and "Maggie Cheung", since "Maggie" seems like a "real" person being caught by an unobtrusive camera. But for me, the way Maggie Cheung is used is the most interesting part of the picture. The "Maggie Cheung" of the movie is fetishized (and since the real Cheung plays herself, the movie by extension also fetishizes that real Cheung). "Cheung" as Irma Vep wears a latex catsuit that is extremely right, which invites viewers of the Assayas film to gaze at the Hong Kong actress. (The director of the movie's Irma Vep gets the idea for the catsuit from pictures of Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman.) The real Maggie Cheung is one of the screen's great beauties (she was named Miss Photogenic in the 1983 Miss Hong Kong pageant), but she is also one of our greatest actors, fully capable of playing "herself" playing "Irma Vep".
Irma Vep is a lot of fun, and it's also smart. You might watch it and get some entirely different, deeper reactions than I had. But, while not wanting to dismiss the other fine actors in the movie, or the work of Assayas, for me, Irma Vep is driven by the performance of Maggie Cheung.