somewhere deep down, most of us carry the romantic notion that any work of art is a gift created solely to give us joy, a party favor we’ve been told we can keep. And yet art that really affects us often takes something away. Sometimes, while you’re in the process of falling in love with a movie, filling your eyes and your ears and getting ready to run off with your souvenirs when the lights come up, someone, or something, is reaching right into your pockets, getting ready to run off with a little part of you. Maybe that’s why, when you leave the theater after seeing a movie you adore, you may feel overjoyed and exhilarated, but also bereft. You’re left asking, How am I different? What’s missing? While you were flexing your very best powers of observation (soaking in the details, trawling for symbolism, catching all the little jokes), the jewel thief had snuck inside — and left without a trace.
It’s fitting that French director Olivier Assayas’ “Irma Vep,” a movie about loving movies, is also about a jewel thief — or, that is, an actress playing a jewel thief. Slinky, smart and funny, “Irma Vep” doesn’t send up that sticky-sweet incense smell you usually get in movies about the joy of cinema-with-a-capital-C. It’s a languorous love ballad, and a daring one, about the way moving pictures move, the way they hold light, the way they steal from us when we’re not looking. The movie’s in-jokes — they poke fun at both the ponderousness of contemporary French filmmaking and the way the French view the “crassness” of American movies — are amusing but never belabored, and they always take a back seat to the inky beauty of its images. You can talk film theory till you’re blue in the face, but in the end, the thing that may haunt you most about a movie is a pair of eyes.
There’s a movie within a movie in “Irma Vep.” Reni is an idealistic French director (played by French New Wave icon Jean-Pierre Liaud with a quivering irascibility that’s touching because it reveals Reni’s fragility) who’s slowly unraveling emotionally. He’s been approached to remake the 1915 Louis Feuillade serial “Les Vampires” and imports Hong Kong star Maggie Cheung (played by herself) for the lead.
As Irma Vep, the leader of a mysterious gang of thieves who haunt Paris by night — a part originally played by the legendary French silent star Musidora, as Reni persistently reminds her — Cheung creeps around the set in a black latex cat suit. She’s a breathing metaphor for moviemakers’ workmanlike tools of shadows and light. Her costume is fitted with an S&M-style hood with cutouts only for her eyes, which are like mysterious magic lanterns — huge and luminous, taking in her surroundings with fleeting, sidelong glances and penetrating, direct ones. When Cheung becomes frustrated by Reni’s insistence that she’s not sufficiently “feeling” her role, she dons her costume in an after-hours fit of restlessness and creeps into another guest’s room at her hotel, grabbing a glistening tangle of beads. She heads for the rooftop, her lithe, catlike strides and leaps telegraphing her uncertainty, arousal and fear, and she flings the “jewels” over the edge, framed by the deep blue of the night sky around her.
“Irma Vep” doesn’t have to work hard to get us to fall in love with Cheung: Like the film’s bisexual costume mistress, Zoi (played with a heartbreaking offhandedness by Nathalie Richard), we’re sunk almost from the moment we see her. When Maggie hears that Zoi is attracted to her, she’s both charmed and incredulous: a swath of emotions, from confusion to cautious delight, passes across her face with the subtlety and playfulness of ripples on a lake. When she ultimately rejects Zoi and heads back to her hotel in a taxi, Assayas (and his brilliant cinematographer, Eric Gautier) shows us only sketchy details of the car and the shiny, licorice-black street: almost all the light radiates from Cheung’s face as she waves, smiling, to the crushed Zoi from inside the cab.
When Reni suffers a breakdown, he’s replaced on the project, and Cheung is cut for not being “French” enough. In the movie’s devastating final sequence, where we see the silent footage that the troubled Reni has completed, our love for Cheung as a movie image intensifies with the realization of how much Reni has loved her, too. In that footage — colored an eerie matte bluish-black-and-white — the film’s emulsion has been scraped away in places to create flashes, waves, dots and dashes of light, like a silent code for lovesickness. Daggers of light like resolute little hyphens shoot from Cheung’s eyes; her pupils have been etched out and replaced with white circles like miniature moons; the contours of her hair, her neck, her shoulders, have been outlined with soft strokes of light that curve and move with her. Reni’s love for her has become a kind of destruction, and yet his embellished footage is like a sonnet he’s written for her: Its beauty is both inspired by her and goes beyond her.
And the shock of it is that we’re complicit in his act. With her beauty traced in dots and dashes and lines, Maggie’s more haunting, more heartrending, than ever. In “Irma Vep,” shot in 16 mm on a tiny budget, Assayas affirms that for viewers and filmmakers alike, movies are still worth believing in — that the very lunacy of trusting in their significance is just as brave and extravagant an act as actually going out and making one yourself. When the screen finally goes black, when Cheung as Irma Vep is lost to us forever, we feel almost broken. The thief has struck again, and for a moment, it’s too much to bear: Go ahead — take another little piece of my heart now, baby. The secret, though, is to hang on, because the most miraculous part comes after the lights go up. That’s when you assess the damage, and you realize just how much you still have left.