Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep.
Zeitgeist Films/Everett Collection

What does film mean? What does making a film mean? Watching movies can be all-consuming by itself; why on Earth would anyone want to make one? Olivier Assayas’ dazzling Irma Vep answers all of those questions and none of them. Hong Kong film star Maggie Cheung appears as a version of herself, brought to Paris to star in a remake of Louis Feuillade’s 1915 crime serial Les Vampires. The director is an idealistic old-school auteur, René, played by New Wave legend Jean-Pierre Léaud. He has very specific ideas of what he wants, so intricately personal that those around him don’t always know how to follow his directives. He’s also on the cusp of a breakdown, having burrowed so deeply into the nautilus of his ideas that he can’t find his way out.

Assayas revisited and reimagined this material with a limited series for HBO in 2022, but the OG version, funny, hypnotic, and brushed with tender melancholy, reigns supreme. The crew of Irma Vep’s film-within-a-film includes costume designer Zoé, played by the effervescent, wistful Nathalie Richard, who develops a crush on Maggie: in one scene, the two zip through nighttime Paris on a motorbike, the lights of the city blurred like an unspoken promise. Cheung, as the actor Maggie, is as radiant as a guiding star. And as the jewel thief Irma Vep, slinking through the ill-fated movie-within-a-movie in a latex suit, she’s a night-dweller of dreams, and of movies. She steals a little something from us, leaving us bereft at the end, until we start re-reeling the film in memory. Only then do we see the treasure we’ve walked away with.

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