In modern French cinema, there are very few directors that can make you recall the classics of 1960s New Wave cinema like The 400 Blows or My Night at Maud’s. With a Rohmer-esque style, Olivier Assayas is the director who comes closest with a political and philosophical bent that makes interesting use of visuals as well as making dialogue the main arena for conflict. Even with all the nostalgia Assayas can provoke, he does not worship these directors as idols and instead addresses their shortcomings and the weaknesses of modern cinema in general. That is what made him a breakout star director of the 1990s and his new miniseries, Irma Vepstarring Alicia Vikander is proving to be an even more in-depth takedown of society, cinema, and identity. For those that can not get enough of this miniseries, here’s a list you’ll be sure to enjoy!
Irma Vep (1996)
The only really obvious choice to watch after the remake miniseries, is the original masterpiece, Irma Vep. Starring his then-wife and Hong Kong acting legend, Maggie Cheung (In the Mood for Love) in an extremely meta role as a Chinese actress famous for her roles in action movies who comes to France to star in a remake of Les Vampires and instead finds a set full of drama, insanity, and mediocrity. While his new miniseries serves as a takedown of the state of Hollywood today, his original film tackles French cinema and their strange obsession with auteurship as well as the price of stardom. With fabulous performances from both Cheung and Jean Pierre Leaud (The 400 Blows), this is a must-see!
The only other project that Assayas has made into both a miniseries and an edited-down film, Carlos is a political epic that takes you through the decades of the Cold War and across the globe. The film centers around the famous Venezuelan political terrorist, Carlos the Jackal (Edgar Ramirez), and his birth as a fighter for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and his evolution as a founder of a worldwide terrorist organization. Though many may be unfamiliar with Carlos, Assayas portrays him as a kind of terrorist version of Forrest Gump, a behind-the-scenes guy who seems to show up at the most important places and times in Cold War history. In a film that shows a different side of the Cold War struggle, Assayas proves just how dramatic history can be!
Center Stage (1991)
In another great Maggie Cheung vehicle, director Stanley Kwan infuses a show business documentary with an elaborate biopic. Center Stage focuses on the life of Chinese silent film legend Ruan Lingyu (Cheung) as she rises up from a modest background, becomes a star, and sadly kills herself in what some believe to be a direct response to the overwhelming and insidious tabloid gossip. The other half of the film features interviews with Cheung, other castmates, and people who knew Lingyu as they talk about what her legend status means to them. For another movie that examines the nature of stardom with meta tactics and nostalgic visuals, check out Center Stage.
In this examination of the artistic process, Assayas gave us an intense psychological examination of performance and identity. Clouds of Sils Maria begins when veteran actress Maria (Juliette Binoche) accepts a role in the play that made her famous, but this time as the older, desperate woman and not as the young, powerful girl she originally played. Coming to terms with her age, her personal assistant Valentine (Kristen Stewart) rehearses with her and begins to see how art and life become one. Assayas delivers a story so disorienting that we even begin to question what in the movie is real and what is simply a play.
Day for Night (1973)
The ultimate movie about making a movie, Day for Night is Francois Truffaut‘s masterpiece. This 1973 classic follows a cast and crew trying to make a film about adultery but find themselves struggling to finish it due to a myriad of professional and personal reasons. Jean-Luc Godard may have derided the film as being a misleading and inaccurate portrait of filmmaking, you can not help but become intoxicated by it. Maybe the movie promotes a lie, but with dramatic storylines acted out by Jean Pierre Leaud, Jacqueline Bissetand Valentina Corteseit’s the most beautiful lie you’ll ever see.
Though Robert Altman had been a seminal director in the 1970s, the 80s saw his career slow down until 1992 when he made this meta-comedy thriller. The Player follows a Hollywood executive named Griffin Mill (Tim Robbins) who is being sent death threats from a writer whose script he rejected, His only problem is he can figure out which one. Having been shunned after his box office bomb, Popeye, Altman was well aware of how toxic and ruthless Hollywood could be and his perspective pierces through the screen. Chock full of thrills and jokes all at the film industry’s expense, this is one of Altman’s most biting takedowns!
In 2014, Alicia Vikander exploded into the mainstream culture when she made four movies, but the one that has left the biggest mark is Ex Machina. The film follows Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer who is invited by his CEO (Oscar Isaac) to administer the Turing test to an intelligent humanoid robot, Ava (Vikander). Alex Garland‘s sci-fi epic offers us two questions: Do AI robots have the same feelings as humans and if so, can they be trusted? They may be hard to answer but these questions are definitely worthy of our attention and Vikander’s presence keeps us guessing.
Another French filmmaker who chose to examine Hollywood culture, Michel Hazanavicius‘ The Artist stands alone as only the second silent film to win an Oscar for Best Picture. The film tells the story of a fictional silent film star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) whose career begins to fall apart as talking pictures arrive. To add insult to injury, the young woman he loves and whose career he made, Peppy Miller (Berenice Bejo), finally gets her big break. In what seems to be a cinematic response to the more optimistic version of this story portrayed in Singin ‘in the Rain, The Artist offers a more realistic and, at times, hard-to-watch depiction of how Hollywood swallows you up and spits you out.
It’s hard to find a better film noir that examines Hollywood culture and the fear of being forgotten before you’ve even drawn your last breath. Sunset Boulevard begins when LAPD officers and photographers find the body of screenwriter Joe Gillis (William Holden) floating lifeless in a pool. The rest of the film is a flashback told from Joe’s perspective as he details how his association with an aging silent film star, Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) led to his untimely death. At times the story seems straight out of Charles Dicken ‘s Great Expectations and at others James M Cain‘s Double Indemnity while still retaining a cinematic vibrancy that’s hard to categorize.
8 ½ (1963)
Federico Fellini may have made many masterpieces in his career but it is 8 ½ that remains synonymous with the artistic process and the director himself. 8 ½ follows Guido Anselmi (Marcello Mastroianni), a film director who finds himself facing a fatal case of writer’s block as he prepares to make his ninth film. Doctors examine him and urge him to seek treatment in vain, staff work overtime on sets and costumes they do not know if they’ll use, and his mistress and wife compete for his attention. The movie should be as messy as this man’s life, but instead, Fellini takes this calamitous moment as an opportunity to examine his past and cinema’s future.