For a show as deliriously lively as “Irma Vep,” the HBO restricted series produced, composed and directed by the French filmmaker Olivier Assayas, its inmost facts are often the most bluntly spoken. One speaker is Mira Harberg (Alicia Vikander), a Hollywood star who’s playing the Parisian gem thief Irma Vep in a remake of “Les Vampires,” Louis Feuillade’s 1915 criminal activity serial. Taking pleasure in a free moment with another actor, Cynthia (Fala Chen), Mira silently proclaims the power of cinema and regrets its growing obsolescence in a content-saturated period: “Motion pictures are a portal to some sort of spiritual world we do not have access to anymore,” she states. “We have actually lost our faith.”
Later in the exact same episode, Mira’s raucous German co-star, Gottfried (Lars Eidinger), will celebrate his last day of shooting by spraying the team with Champagne and damaging a couple of furniture pieces, part of a life of hedonistic risk connected to his ride-or-die belief in the movies: “Cinema was the wild west. Why are we making movies now?” he rants. “Who’s willing to put their life on the line for movies? We reside in boring, dark, dull times. Where is the sense of adventure? Where’s the mayhem? Where’s the mayhem?”
Now, it’s completely possible that Gottfried, a cocaine addict who has a close brush with death mid-production, simply hasn’t been paying attention. From day one, trouble and turmoil have been this production’s only real constants. The hugely aberrant director, René Vidal (Vincent Macaigne), has a bad practice of verbally and sometimes physically assaulting his stars. Those actors (they consist of Vincent Lacoste and Hippolyte Girardot), having a hard time to accommodate their egos within the parameters of an early 20th century text, constantly question their characters’ motivations while refusing to examine their own.
Lars Eidinger in the HBO series “Irma Vep.”
Everyone is at the monetary mercy of a cosmetics giant that has bankrolled the production exclusively in hopes of convincing Mira to end up being the face of its brand-new fragrance, Dreamscape. That could be an allusion to the progressively blurry, dreamlike power this “Irma Vep” radiates as it unfolds, or perhaps the waking nightmare that the shoot soon becomes.What a mess! But likewise, what déjà vu. “Irma Vep” is a serialized remake of Assayas’ 1996 feature of the same title, which also follows an actor– in this case, the Hong Kong star Maggie Cheung, playing a version of herself– who has been cast in a remake of”Les Vampires.” From the minute she gets here, Maggie is our guide to a production that never finds its footing and eventually collapses. The director, also named René Vidal (and played by the terrific Jean-Pierre Léaud), is changed. Maggie is also changed, unsurprisingly, by a white French actor.The brand-new “Irma Vep, “for all the behind-the-scenes turbulence it shows
us, ends on a more enthusiastic note.(The eighth and last episode airs Monday.) It’s a show of dizzyingly prismatic satisfaction, and while it’s a delight whether you’ve seen the motion picture or not, there’s enormous satisfaction in setting it next to its predecessor and marveling at the sheer build-up of meta-layers. If the very first” Irma Vep,”a movie about the making of a movie adjusted from a serial, had numerous acerbic insights into the international movie industry in the mid-’90s, this”Irma Vep,”a series about the making of a series adapted from the same serial, provides a much more deliciously barbed view of the biz in today day. Maggie Cheung in the 1996 movie”Irma Vep. “( STF/Zeitgeist Films)If Assayas is weighing in on
the past and present, he’s also analyzing the distinctions in between movie theater and television, a debate that often consumes his characters. Were Feuillade and his silent-era contemporaries the very first content creators, one asks, set on getting audiences hooked on a hot new platform? Or were they true artists, fearlessly unbeholden to market pressures as they pushed a new medium to its boundaries and beyond? And speaking of borders: Is the popular scene of Irma Vep’s capture a thinly coded sexual assault– and if so, what responsibility does a filmmaker, particularly a male filmmaker, owe his stars and his audience in the period of #MeToo? In toying with some of these concerns, Assayas gladly puts himself– or rather René, his barely disguised avatar– on the area. Irritable
, shortsighted however also bighearted, an exacting perfectionist whose life couldn’t be more of a shambles, René puts a more abrasive, overstated edge on some of Assayas’own ideas. At one point he describes his “Vampires”revamp as”undoubtedly a bit long, divided into 8 pieces. But I’m not making a series; I’m making a movie. “Some may keep in mind Assayas explaining his dazzling 2010 drama,”Carlos, “as a five-and-a-half-hour movie, and indeed, it played movie festivals, showed in movie theaters and got honors from movie critics. It also aired as a three-hour miniseries on television networks all over the world and won various TV awards.The HBO/A24-produced”Irma Vep,”for its part, is very much television– and fantastic tv at that– but it likewise has an impishly cinephilic perceptiveness. This is Assayas ‘very first production considering that the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, and as such it feels like both a sly concession to our streaming-dominant period and a bold argument for the power of films. It’s ingeniously ambivalent about its own identity. Alicia Vikander in the HBO series “Irma Vep.”(Carole Bethuel/HBO) The rhythms might be episodic, however the environment could barely be more Assayesque. The swirling ensemble is a who’s- who of Assayas veterans, including Macaigne, Jeanne Balibar, Nora Hamzawi,
Alex Descas and, in a flashing final-episode cameo,
Kristen Stewart. Assayas composed and directed every episode, much as he does all his films. Among those films, this”Irma Vep “is continuing an especially perky conversation with Assayas’art-world funnies like “Non-Fiction” (2019 ), with its anxiety over how digital technology is improving media, and “Clouds of Sils Maria”(2014 ), with its dishily intimate scenes in between an actress and her assistant (to state absolutely nothing of its casual contempt for a lot of Hollywood blockbusters). This”Irma Vep”is catnip, in other words, for Assayas’ regular art-house admirers. That it never feels lofty or unattainable– that it right away pulls us into a world of outrageous, charming, brilliant, unbearable and completely human individuals– speaks with Assayas’ skill as a writer of characters and a director of
actors. But it also speaks to the interest with which he embraces the storytelling possibilities of a longer-form story. To name a few things, this”Irma Vep”is even more of a remake of”Les Vampires”than the first one was; with its caring re-creation of scenes from Feuillade’s original, it fulfills, in beautifully expressive bits and pieces, a dream that Assayas, like René, has long held dear.That might sound contradictory, but then contradiction and unpredictability have constantly been Assayas’sweet areas. Whether he’s dramatizing the history of ’70s international terrorism (“Carlos” ), the advanced eagerness of post-1968 France(“Something in the Air “)or the fate of a household’s inheritance(” Summer Hours” ), he remains our fantastic chronicler of a world forever in social, cultural and technological flux. In your home and adrift suggest the very same thing in an Assayas motion picture, and it’s precisely in this destabilization that his characters, wanderers and rebels all, paradoxically find their grip. Why should Assayas himself be any different? * * * Maggie Cheung in the 1996 movie”Irma Vep.”(Isabelle Weingarten/Zeitgeist Movies)In the original “Irma Vep,”Cheung plays the stunning outsider; she’s admired, wanted, condescended to and lastly dismissed for simply racist reasons. Vikander’s Mira is a more privileged outsider, a white, Swedish-born, U.S.-based star with serious Hollywood prestige. A red-carpet supernova simply coming off an effective blockbuster,
she may look like the ready-made queen in this formula, with the complete complement of star entitlements and entanglements. Chief amongst the latter is a current break up with her former assistant, Laurie(Adria Arjona), who ditched her to wed said hit’s hack-on-the-rise director, Herman (Byron Bowers). However Mira ends up being far less of a prima donna than her fellow actors, as Vikander’s subtle, sensitive performance gradually reveals. She’s a practiced expert and a surprising group player; more than when she utilizes her not-inconsiderable leverage to help her colleagues, including her whip-smart brand-new assistant, Regina( a splendidly sardonic Devon Ross ). Crucially, too, Mira is one of the few individuals on the set who loves and comprehends”Les Vampires”enough to wonder– and more excitingly,
picture– how an update of a 1915 serial might speak to a contemporary audience. That may make Mira seem a touch idealized, and maybe she is. When she discusses the splendor of movie theater, she waxes so touchingly poetic, you ‘d practically believe a film critic had written her dialogue.And in a sense, one did. Assayas, now 67, was a critic before he turned to filmmaking in his early 30s, and his films, even at their most viscerally grasping(” Demonlover “)or mentally frustrating(” Summer season Hours” ), often carry a theoretical dimension that is both whimsical and extensive. The first “Irma Vep”was a terrific movie and a terrific piece of shot criticism. Its specifying sequence– of Cheung slipping around the rooftops of Paris in Irma Vep’s form-hugging black catsuit, already
celebrated in the serial by the quiet screen legend Musidora– took a stereotypical image nearly as old as movie theater itself and invested it with matter-of-fact sensuality and a raw, liberated post-punk energy. Vincent Macaigne in the HBO series”Irma Vep. “(Carole Bethuel/HBO )That energy has receded somewhat in the new”Irma Vep, “as befits its glossier sheen and extended running time. That might seem like a knock, and indeed, I had a couple of knocks at the ready when word initially emerged that Assayas was remaking one of his early masterpieces. How could any performer hold up against the inevitable contrasts to Cheung at her most incandescent? Why cast a white star in a function previously played by an Asian actor, maybe intensifying an injustice especially called
out at the end of the original film?
Why excavate the uncomfortable and
bittersweet emotional baggage of the first” Irma Vep,” which is, among other things, among the purest examples of a director falling for his star through the lens of a camera?( Cheung and Assayas wed in 1998 and separated in 2001, numerous years before Cheung revealed her early retirement from acting.)The immediate response to these questions is that Assayas has clearly been thinking of them himself, and he’s developed them straight into his cleverly rejiggered story. In the meta-to-the-max world of the series, some version of the 1996″Irma Vep “exists, directed not by Assayas however by René. A comparable variation of Cheung exists here, too, in the kind of a now-retired Hong Kong star, Jade Lee (played by the Chinese-born Vivian Wu). Jade appears to René in a nighttime dream series in which they swap concerns: Why hasn’t she responded to his emails? How could
he take on”Les Vampires” without her? As Assayas has acknowledged in interviews, it’s a variation of a conversation– stunning in its emotional nakedness– that he wishes he might have with a former imaginative and romantic partner whose lack haunts him still. “Irma Vep”2.0 might be Assayas ‘reckoning with an ever-shifting medium, however it’s also very much his reckoning with himself.That’s why one of the more consistent criticisms of this”Irma Vep”– “Alicia Vikander is no Maggie Cheung”– mainly misses the point. The series is its own wrenching acknowledgment that nobody has replaced or might replace Cheung, in”Irma Vep” or in Assayas’life and career. (He also directed her in 2004’s”Clean, “not long after their separation. )Sometimes Assayas holds both Maggie’s Irma Vep and Mira’s Irma Vep in counterpoint, superimposing images from the latter over the previous. The impact is haunting and melancholy, however it isn’t competitive. That black catsuit, tight as it is, proves flexible enough to
hold them both. Devon Ross and Alicia Vikander in the HBO series “Irma Vep. “(Carole Bethuel/HBO )At the very same time, Mira’s match is significantly sleeker and blacker, less rubbery and reflective than Cheung’s, which seems like a nod to an increasingly digital, effects-reliant medium. As if to drive house the point, Mira, utilizing her match’s liquid, feline powers, starts magically strolling through walls. She slides from space to room, spying on the characters around her with an omniscience that aligns her with her developer. She’s a star combining with her character, however she’s likewise combining with an innovation that, far from rendering her outdated, does its part to keep her alive.
“Her soul has actually been haunting movie theater for a century. She’s a shapeshifter, transforming herself every
generation, “Macaigne’s René says of Irma Vep, with inexpressible tenderness.”She’s a spirit. And spirits are not good or bad, they are simply spirits. Cinema awakened her the very same way mediums conjure the dead to reconnect.”René’s use of the word”mediums”sent my mind racing back to among Assayas ‘biggest movies,”Personal Buyer “(2017 ), which tells the story of a literal medium, in the spiritual instead of artistic sense. The pun is inspired; it likewise advises us that cinema has constantly been an art of funneling ghosts, of communing with and even reanimating the dead.Like “Personal Shopper,”this”Irma Vep” is a ghost story about the deep, unshakable burden of loss. However within that loss, Assayas sees the possibility of regeneration, of distinctive threats and gorgeous discoveries; he articulates that faith in the power of moving images that Mira is trying to find. Irma Vep helps her discover it, simply as “Irma Vep “– the movie, the series and whatever in between– might yet assist us discover ours.