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Midway through Irma Vep, a film about making a film called Irma Vep, lead actress Maggie Cheung (played by Hong Kong star Maggie Cheung) goes to see director René Vidal (played by Truffaut and Godard alter ego Jean-Pierre Léaud). René is demoralized, and Maggie tries to console him by saying that she likes playing the character. “It’s like a game,” she suggests. “No, it’s not a game,” retorts René. “It’s very important!”

Well, exactly. French self-referentiality at its most enchanting, Irma Vep is a game and it’s very important. Partially improvised and shot in super-16 in less than a month, this outgoing in-joke is freewheeling, spontaneous, and funny. But French critic-turned-director Olivier Assayas’ film is also a full-fledged debate about the state of contemporary French cinema.

The narrative begins, suddenly, with Maggie’s arrival in Paris, three days late, jet-lagged, and speaking no French. The story begins, however, with the real-world suggestion that Assayas remake Louis Feuillade’s 1915-16 thriller serial, Les Vampires. He demurred, but then imagined a picture about a director who accepted the assignment: washed-up French New Waver René.

Since Les Vampires is an icon of early French cinema, the very idea of remaking it is loaded. René decides that it would be “blasphemy” to cast a French actress in the role of Irma Vep (an anagram of “vampire”), so he recruits Maggie, whom he’d seen in a typically berserk Hong Kong action fantasy, The Heroic Trio. A veteran of speedy, less analytical Hong Kong filmmaking, Maggie sees Irma Vep as a job. For most of the people around her, however, it’s a crisis.

As a film about filmmaking, Irma Vep has been compared to Tom DiCillo’s Living in Oblivion, Truffaut’s Day for Night (which also starred Léaud), and Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore (in which the director was played by Lou Castel, who also portrays a director in Assayas’ film). But Irma Vep is richer and more allusive than any of them. As Eric Gautier’s handheld camera zigs and zags through comic scenes of petty rivalries and passing lusts, Assayas conducts a discursive dialectic about world cinema in the age of Schwarzenegger and Spielberg.

Squeezed into a latex bodysuit, Maggie is informed that she’s supposed to look like Hollywood’s Catwoman by costumier Zoé (Nathalie Richard), who’s soon telling the star that “I don’t like American films.” (“I know what you mean,” replies the diplomatic Maggie.) Later, Zoé takes Maggie to a party where people are watching Classe de Lutte, a ’60s-radical film that’s also about filmmaking, and listening to a remake of a song about film: Luna and Laetitia Sadier’s version of Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot’s “Bonnie and Clyde.”

Irma Vep’s debate is not all talk. Assayas intercuts his loose, playful behind-the-scenes shots with sequences from Les Vampires, a scene from The Heroic Trio, and René’s increasingly abstract footage. Indeed, the writer/director knows that you don’t even need a camera to make a film. At one point, Maggie decides to play the role of Irma Vep for real, skulking through her hotel, slipping into another guest’s room, and stealing some costume jewelry. For a few minutes, Maggie is living her own movie.

Cinema’s power has always had an erotic element, and René ultimately reveals that what really inspires him is Maggie herself. He’s not alone: The bisexual Zoé also has an carnal interest in the HK star. In her catsuit, Maggie is “like a plastic toy,” Zoé giggles. “You want to touch her, play with her.” Assayas plays too, defying the audience to keep its eyes on Maggie in the scene where she slips into a hotel room inhabited by a nude woman talking on the phone. (It’s Arsinée Khanjian, the wife of Assayas’ friend, director Atom Egoyan.)

This intellectual romp is nothing so simple as a defense of French cinema. In one scene, Maggie is interrogated by a French journalist (Antoine Basler) who extols Jackie Chan and John Woo. As she tries to be polite, the interviewer denounces French films as overintellectualized and passé. The journalist is clearly not speaking for René (or Assayas), yet he must see some truth in this critique. After all, both the fictional director and the actual one decided they needed an infusion of energy from the brisk, buoyant cinema of HK directors like Chan, Woo, and Wong Kar-Wai, whose Chungking Express shares Irma Vep’s unstudied verve. René hired Maggie—and so did Assayas.

As giddy and vital as early Godard, Irma Vep is actually meticulous in structure and dense with visual jokes and pungent juxtapositions. When Maggie robs the hotel room, the nude woman is complaining in English to the man who has abandoned her in a town where “I don’t know anyone”—which is exactly what René has done to the English-speaking Maggie. (The woman wonders if she’s in her own movie too: “Am I making this up? Am I creating this relationship on my own?”) Just after the interviewer announces to Maggie that French cinema is “over, it’s finished,” the word comes down that René’s tenure as director is done.

Even the use of language is dialectical. It’s no accident that the first of Assayas’ six acclaimed features to win American commercial distribution is predominantly in English. Confronted with the British-bred Cheung’s cool, Assayas’ Parisians do seem self-conscious and wordy in their almost-mastered English. (“Can you respirate?” asks Zoé as she alters Maggie’s latex suit.) For all its American brashness and Hong Kong energy, however, the film never betrays its roots. Irma Vep is assuredly, deliriously French.

In Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, a motley band defends a village from marauding bandits. In his Ran, a fiefdom is devastated by a battle to succeed a warlord. In his Madadayo, a retired professor loses his cat.

Not recommended to those who appreciate Japanese cinema only for samurai action, Kurosawa’s 30th film is homey and unabashedly sentimental. Based on the life and writings of Hyakken Uchida, this 1993 effort (now at the American Film Institute theater in its first extended U.S. run) is a simple tale of a teacher and his endlessly devoted former students. The period covered includes the end of World War II, but that event is treated principally as a destabilizing factor in the Tokyo real estate market. After the sweeping anti-nuclear themes of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams and Rhapsody in August, Kurosawa has made his quietest, most domestic movie.

Madadayo opens with Uchida (Tatsuo Matsumura) telling his students that he will retire prematurely to concentrate on his writing. The students spontaneously pay tribute, and Uchida wipes away tears. It’s the first of numerous lachrymose moments. Kurosawa has created many memorable tough guys, but now he demonstrates the other side of Japanese manliness—the swordless samurai who spends his time writing poetry and contemplating the fine points of nature. Indeed, Madadayo is fascinating simply as an anthropological study of Japanese male bonding: At a series of birthday parties, the students ask if their beloved mentor is ready to die (“mahda-kai?”), he answers “not yet” (madadayo), and then they all get drunk, sing traditional songs and patent-medicine jingles, and turn maudlin.

Uchida is supposed to be a little crusty, and over the years he posts various signs that (in complicated Japanese puns) are meant to discourage visitors. When told that his new house is a target for burglars, however, Uchida adds a “burglar’s entrance” sign. Later, he welcomes Nora, a curiously plump stray cat who slips into the garden from the postwar rubble. When Nora disappears, Uchida is devastated, and his concerned disciples mobilize to search. (Always sensitive to animals, Uchida feels a horse’s accusing eyes on him after he buys some horsemeat.) “His sensitivity and imagination are beyond us,” marvels one former student, and they may be beyond some of the film’s viewers as well.

Madadayo is sweet but admittedly slow. (It might be a good place to depressurize after one this summer’s hyperactive FX flicks.) Kurosawa buffs will appreciate the multicamera compositions, which recall his classic ’50s films, while marveling at the uncharacteristic subject; AFI programmer Mike Jeck suggests that Kurosawa here becomes Ozu, “his own great opposite.”

With its lovingly rendered period details, Madadayo can be seen as an elegy for the Japan of Kurosawa’s prime. It is also, of course, a meditation on the filmmaker’s own dwindling days. When Uchida is asked for the last time if he’s ready to die, he answers again, “madadayo.” It’s clear, though, that he can’t offer this response many more times, and the camera drifts to a colorful sky that becomes increasingly abstract and otherworldly. It’s a serene moment, but earlier the film also offers a less demure reflection on death, when Uchida declares that he’s still afraid of the dark. “Anyone who isn’t,” he says, “doesn’t have the proper imagination.”

With Madadayo, AFI is showing a “Kurosawa in Color” series that includes such epics as Dersu Uzala, Ran, and Kagemusha, as well as three divergent efforts, Dodeskaden, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams, and Rhapsody in August. The epics (especially Ran) are the standouts, but all these films are visually and thematically rich.CP