If you’d made one of the most poetic and modern-feeling films of the 1990s—a romance about the way art can steal from you as much as it bestows, as well as a reflection on the changing landscape of filmmaking itself—whatever would possess you to revisit it as a TV series in 2022? If you’ve seen Olivier Assayas’ magnificent and haunting 1996 almost-comedy Irma Vep—starring Maggie Cheung as a Hong Kong superstar, a version of herself, embarking on an ill-fated remake of Louis Feuillade’s 1916 crime serial Les Vampires—you might be asking that very question right now.
The answer is wrapped within the elegant, deadpan pleasures of Assayas’ revisited Irma Vep, an eight-part HBO and A24 coproduction streaming on HBO Max beginning June 6. Assayas—the brainy maestro behind films like the sun-dappled elegy Summer Hours, the futuristic brain-messer-upper Demonlover, and the Kristen Stewart-powered ghost story Personal Shopper—is one of the most imaginative and challenging French filmmakers of the past 30 years. With this new Irma Vep he hasn’t so much remade his earlier film as turned it inside out, expanding some ideas and collapsing others, inventing new characters and subplots, and adapting some of his earlier questions about art and obsession to our weird new age. Instead of replacing the earlier film—what could?—the new Irma Vep is a sort of reset, a way of taking stock of how far we’ve come, and of brokering a truce with certain forms and technologies that are not going away.
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For the first few episodes at least, Assayas follows the rough structure the 1996 film: Mira (Alicia Vikander), a restless American movie star who has just completed a superhero blockbuster called Doomsday, hopes to rekindle her mojo by taking a role in a limited TV series, to be shot in Paris, by a director she reveres, René Vidal (the marvelously neurotic Vincent Macaigne). Before she can start on the new project, she still needs to do some press for the big, dumb blockbuster. Upon her arrival in Paris, she’s dismayed to find that Doomsday’s director is also in town, accompanied by his slinky new wife, Laurie (Adria Arjona, recently seen in the ill-fated Morbius), who used to be Mira’s assistant—as well as her lover.
Mira tries to keep her cool. She’s both excited by the idea of her new enterprise and rattled by her new surroundings, as well as by the people who barge into and out of her orbit. Those include an ex she may have kicked to the curb too soon, fellow actor Eamonn (Tom Sturridge); a stylish and wily costume designer who might have designs on Mira herself, Zoe (Jeanne Balibar, with her take-no-prisoners cheekbones); and a hedonistic supporting performer named Gottfried (a superbly louche Lars Eidinger), who arrives by train in messy eyeliner and a ragged leopard coat, desperate for crack. Meanwhile, Mira’s gloriously poker-faced new assistant, recent film-school-grad Regina (played with insouciance by Devon Ross), keeps one hawk-eye on her boss’s schedule while taking in a little Gilles Deleuze with the other. Regina sees all but betrays little.
Amid all the distractions, Mira strives to stay focused on her work, and to do justice to her character, originally played by the ravishing amphora-shaped silent-film star Musidora who, as René explains, was her era’s antidote to the squeaky-clean image of the damsel in distress. In Les Vampires, as Parisian thief extraordinaire Irma Vep, she tiptoed through Paris in a formfitting velvet catsuit, a self-assured, erotic presence. Mira has a similar costume, and in one dreamily nocturnal sequence, we see her slinking along the hallways of a fancy hotel, which Assayas twins with images of Cheung, the 1996 Irma Vep, doing the same. Elsewhere, Assayas seems to take great pleasure in going even further back, melding Feuillade’s vision with René’s, showing how the past can blur into the present until both seem modern, like one ever-growing snowball rolling into the future. These scenes are beautifully imagined, Musidora’s foxy vitality melting into Mira’s moody vibrance before our every eyes.
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Both the recent past and days long past are never far from Assayas’s mind. The 1996 Irma Vep was partly a response to the reality that celluloid, with its fragility and warmth, was giving way to the relative soullessness of digital means. Today, Assayas still hasn’t given up on the old, but he knows there are good reasons to make way for the new: René uses an iPhone to show Mira a clip from Feuillade’s 105-year-old serial, the images flickering in their tiny window like temporary captives that can never be fully contained. René, like the obsessive filmmaker of the 1996 Irma Vep, played by Jeanne-Pierre Léaud, is just one stress point away from a breakdown. His show is in danger of being shut down completely. (He’d failed to reveal to the insurers that he’s taking antidepressants, which allow him to function.) On set, he knows exactly what he wants, but when he emerges into the real world, he’s lost: the cloth tote that droops from his shoulder as he treks around the city is an apt metaphor for his precarious mental state.
Assayas channels some autobiographical introspection through René’s character, perhaps as a means of parsing some of his own feelings about Cheung, to whom he was married for a few years after the completion of Irma Vep. At one point, René has a vivid and unsettling dream visitation from his ex-wife, who had starred in his earlier film version of Irma Vep. In the dream, the two revisit the breakdown of their union, tracing some of the lingering scars. In a series that’s almost ridiculously, if enjoyably, meta, the scene hits with an arrow’s piercing snap. Everyone travels with their own ghosts, especially filmmakers playing filmmakers who just can’t help themselves from remaking, revisiting, reshaping.
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René, clinging not just to his personal past but also to the past tense of filmmaking, keeps insisting that his current project is “not a series. Because I don’t do series! It’s a film, admittedly a bit long, divided into eight parts.” OK, whatever—this is what Assayas seems to be saying, too. (His 2010 Carlos, about Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal, was made as a TV mini-series even if hardcore Assayasites, as well as probably Assayas himself, consider it a film.) And as intensely self-referential as this 2022 Irma Vep is—it includes cameos from the likes of Nathalie Richard, the Zoe of the original film, who appears to have aged barely a day—you don’t need to have seen the 1996 film to enjoy it. If Vikander doesn’t have Cheung’s hypnotic allure, she wins us over with the vulnerability beneath her character’s confident veneer. She’s a traveler on a journey, hardly naïve, but not old enough to know everything either.
Assayas, too, is still on a winding path, unable to let go of his usual preoccupations even as new ones emerge. He still wants to know why we respond to art, even as so much of it is increasingly lackluster, and why we continue to try to make it, even when doing so nearly kills us. He will never tire of asking questions to which there’s no answer—he has spent a career doing so—and if you were to thread those questions into even some quasi-logical arrangement, they would constitute a series you’d barely be able to wrap your brain around. Or you could call it a film, admittedly a bit long, divided into many parts. And you could watch it on an iPhone—but why on Earth would you want to?
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