In the years since “Irma Vep” (1996), French iconoclast Olivier Assayas has become more of a high-profile and international filmmaker, and at the same time a less interesting one; “Alice and Martin,” “Les Destinées Sentimentales,” “demonlover,” “Clean” and “Boarding Gate” have all been films bristling with dramatic ideas that have been, at the same time, often half-baked or unoriginal. His yen for high-nicotine, antisocial coolness seems by now a reflex he should outgrow, but in “Irma Vep” it made perfect, hilarious, seamless sense, because the film is actually about the chaotic life of “art film” production (a swollen balloon waiting for a satiric pin), and because his star, Maggie Cheung, is the paradigmatic fish out of water, a sweet-natured Hong Kong movie star lost in the absurd nonsensicalities of post-post-nouvelle vague French cinema culture.
In many ways, the film — still Assayas’ best — is a crazy matrix of inside baseball; when a crew character, working on remaking Feuillade’s “Les Vampires” (1915), is seen watching a clip of the Group Medvedkine’s radical, post-May ’68 documentary portrait “Classe de Lutte” (1969) on TV, in which the unionist heroine plays a swatch of what is probably one of Chris Marker’s brand new “Cinetracts” on a Moviola, you’ve already stumbled into a Gallic moviehead’s ardent skull. But the legacy of the New Wave haunts the film in more ways than one: “Irma Vep” is a run-like-hell, semi-improvised farce detailing a doomed contemporary Parisian remake of Feuillade’s legendary serial — authentically a French culture staple — by an aged and unstable New Wave giant (Jean-Pierre Léaud, doing perhaps a Godard schtick). This sputtering, neurotic hulk decides to make the film silent and in black and white, which hardly bodes well, but then he casts a bewildered Cheung as the arch-villainess Vep (a French movie icon with no counterpart in this or any other country) after only seeing her in the cheesy HK actioner “The Heroic Trio.” (“That’s not me, that’s a stuntperson,” she quietly objects when he shows her the tape.) Not unlike Wong Kar-wai’s “Chungking Express,” Assayas’ breathless and supercool movie was made as a break between more ambitious (and duller) projects, and he employs a similar garage-band style of moviemaking: pick up the equipment and don’t look back.
Léaud’s psycho-mess tells Cheung, who’s playing herself for Assayas, to just “be herself” — but Assayas clearly views himself as the new generational voice here, the torch-bearer for the future. Cheung, playing her non-French-speaking self wandering through a labyrinth of crew squabbles, logistical impossibilities, gay crushes (the costume designer has a meltdown over her) and the director’s eventual nervous breakdown (after the first rushes — “it’s shit!”), is an enchantress, with the face shape and complexion of a newborn, and the film balances precariously on her smiles and modest equilibrium. Her most triumphant scene, and the film’s creepy, mysterious heart, has Cheung attempting to connect with her role as the night-lurker Vep by going on a midnight prowl across the Paris rooftops alone, stalking through the shadows and down hotel corridors in skin-tight black leather and heels, eavesdropping on strangers and even thieving their jewelry. It’s mesmerizing — a visual bridge of urban anxiety and poeticized voyeurism — and because Cheung is so sympathetic, it’s suspenseful, too. Soon thereafter, Léaud’s meta-Godard is replaced by Lou Castel’s laconic meta-Chabrol, and the entire affair explodes into a visualized seizure, the literal effect of movie-drunk psychosis on celluloid. Kudos across the board. The new Zeitgeist DVD comes packing a new Assayas commentary and a short film about Cheung (the two got married, and then divorced), behind-the-scenes footage, rushes, trailers and a new booklet of Assayas’ observations.
The new globalism is taken far more seriously in Irena Salina’s “Flow: For the Love of Water” (2008), “the scariest film at Sundance” this year, according to many, and a lefty doc about an apocalyptic problem we didn’t know we had: the ruination and depletion of drinkable water sources on this planet. It can an abjectly terrifying screed, pursuing two main threads that complement each other like Groucho Marx’s joke about bad food and such small portions — the destruction of water with pollution and residual chemicals, and the privatization of water, for pure World Bank-commanded profit, and to feed the bottled water industry, destroying entire ecosystems and leaving the globe’s cholera-prone extreme poor without. There’s nowhere to hide: Salina visits every continent but Antarctica, and finds one devastated crisis after another, indigenous peoples in South Africa or India or Michigan whose natural sources for potable water are being quickly wrecked.
And why? It’s not a global warming issue, for once; the red-handed varmints are the same silk-suited, prevaricating corporate bastards we see burned in cinematic effigy in film after film, or any discourse that seeks to explain why the poor starve, why the environment is toxic, why the economy is bleeding, and why war machines bomb civilian cities. Here, a large part of the blame goes for the first time in protest doc history to the Swiss, who manufacture Atrazine (a pesticide that finds its way into more bottled waters than not, alters the genetic structure of exposed frogs and is illegal in Europe), and who own Nestlé, which bottles cheap water all over the world to be sold to upscale consumers, despite the fact that the natives in India et al. need that water, and despite not being subject to any health oversight whatsoever. There are other villains in Salina’s passionate, polished, statistic-crammed rant, and plenty of irate citizens sacrificing themselves in dissent (including a village of Indian women who have been staging a sit-in protest for two solid years). But however full the film is of viable solutions and finally overdone uplift, the overall gist of “Flow” is perhaps simpler than Salina might have supposed: we know who the criminals are, right? The men (always smug, overfed, wealthy white men) who have earned millions by destroying the poor. It’s not you or me, innocent drinkers of Poland Spring-tainted-with-gene-fucking-compounds. It’s them. Make them pay. Make them pay.
[Photos: “Irma Vep,” Zeitgeist Films, 1996; “Flow: For the Love of Water,” Oscilloscope Pictures, 2008]
“Irma Vep: Essential Edition” (Zeitgeist Films) and “Flow: For the Love of Water” (Oscilloscope) are now available on DVD.