As much as Olivier Assayas resists having his themes and styles pinned down, one is tempted to put Irma Vep at the center of the French filmmaker's shape-shifting oeuvre. A virtually ad-libbed project—written, shot, and edited, like Wong's Chungking Express, in a creative rush between larger productions—it uses a gallery of frazzled characters to crystallize many of Assayas's obsessions and, casually and boldly, makes the medium itself the most frazzled character of all. Appropriately, the setting is a hectic Parisian movie shoot in which director René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud), once respected but now shaky and befuddled, plans to remake Louis Feuillades's 1915 serial Les Vampires. Into the imploding production breezes Maggie Cheung, beguilingly playing herself as a humble, easygoing international star not quite sure why she's been picked to play Irma Vep, the provocative cat-burglar protagonist of the original. René, who chose the Hong Kong actress as his heroine after watching her in a bit of hyperkinetic wire-fu, doesn't help things: "You must respect the silence," he instructs her at the studio, before taking a swig from a jumbo Coke bottle.
A jumpy, erudite cinephile, Assayas uses Cheung's three days in Paris to take stock of cinema—and, by extension, the world—as the century comes to an end. Léaud's presence as an endearing New Wave memento is just one in a welter of in-jokes, which also includes Lou Castel as an older, schlumpfy version of the director he played in Fassbinder's Beware of a Holy Whore, and views of dead genres (the silent serial, the politicized tract) that materialize like ghosts from French cinema's past. Central to Assayas's meta-analysis is a long, stylized sequence in which Cheung, donning her character's skintight latex outfit, slinks around her hotel, filches a stranded visitor's jewels, and hurls them off the roof in the middle of a nocturnal downpour. A dream? An actress getting into character? Practically a mini-movie, the sequence could be read as Cheung enacting for herself the fantasy projected onto her by René, but even that is further complicated by the fact that she's also enacting a fantasy by and for Assayas, who'd later marry her. Nothing is simple in this comic-acrid portrait of globalized times, where remakes and mélanges extend even into the soundtrack (the too-hip band Luna does a cover of Serge Gainsbourg's '60s hit "Bonnie and Clyde," a French pop tune about Americans).
The post-modern compulsions on display here may bring movies together, but they also keep people apart. Irma Vep is a picture of missed connections and tenuous relationships, most touchingly in the scenes between Cheung and Zoe (Nathalie Richard), her smitten costume designer. "A state of flux" is how Kent Jones described the film's format, so it's fitting that, as a glance into the netherworld of moviemaking, it oscillates between the playfulness of Truffaut's Day for Night and the caustic sadness of Godard's Passion. Presenting itself as a here-and-now snapshot, its characters argue that American films have "too much decoration, too much money" and that French films have become ossified by out-of-touch intellectualism. Assayas agrees at least partially with both positions, yet his satire of cinematic decline is undercut by a sense of hope supplied by his own film's élan, and he even gives the last (visual) word to René by closing the film with the fallen auteur's defiant images filling the screen: An unnerving, Brakhagian barrage of defaced projections. An act of vision or vandalism? Earlier, a scrawled manifesto is seen during the screening of a grainy 1969 relic: "Cinema is not magic. It's a technique and a science." But it will survive and continue to enthrall, Assayas argues, as long as there are people willing to scratch its surfaces.