In 1996, the French director Olivier Assayas made a hip, artsy movie called Irma Vep, in which a famous, slightly crazed French director, René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud) remakes the 1915-16 French silent film classic, Les Vampires, written and directed by Louis Feuillades. Les Vampires features a character named Irma Vep, a shady criminal who tiptoes along the rooftops of Paris in a black catsuit. Assayas’ 1996 take is a behind-the-scenes drama à la Truffaut’s Day for Night, full of boozy dinners, gossipy crew, nervous breakdowns and wardrobe snafus. Hong Kong movie star Maggie Cheung plays Maggie, a version of herself cast in the role of the elusive Irma Vep. Got all that? Also, in real life, Assayas and Cheung were married from 1998-2001.
Irma Vep, the 1996 film, didn’t perform well at the box office, but it became a cult hit and launched Assayas’ career as an internationally acclaimed director.
Now Assayas has returned to Irma Vep, with a limited series that premiered June 6 on HBO. (HBO is also streaming the 1996 film.) The series stars Alicia Vikander as Mira, an American movie star who arrives in Paris to play Irma Vep in a new series, fresh off the release of a successful action film and excited to work on something more challenging. “I’m so sick of being the superhero,” she says. “I don’t need a hit, I need a good movie.”
At the helm is a famous, slightly crazed French director, in this version also called René Vidal (Vincent Macaigne), who also has previously made another movie about Irma Vep. When someone tells Mira that René is nuts, she responds, “he’s nuts in a good way.”
All the pieces are in place for something as dishy and cool as the 1996 version. From the hip animated credit sequence, we immediately see that this is an upgrade. While the first Irma Vep was an indie with New Wave allure—all shaky cameras, songs by Sonic Youth and Luna doing Serge Gainsbourg, blurred closeups, and blurrier emotions—the series is modern, finely-crafted, racy and seductive. It takes on the artistic process, and also the hazards of celebrity and social media, the way a heart can be broken very publicly, while its owner must smile and go about her life, even as her insides feel as if they’ve been blasted out with a bomb.
When Mira arrives in Paris, her ex-girlfriend, who’s also her ex-assistant, shows up suddenly married to the director of the superhero film. Mira is felled by the encounter, thrown off her game, the power dynamic having shifted so fast she’s seasick. She describes her ex’s new successful, rich husband as “a dime a dozen…a douche from LA.” Mira has no time to lick her wounds. She must attend a premiere, a photo shoot, sign autographs, take selfies, try on a stretchy catsuit, become the mysterious queen of an underworld gang for a TV show. She also has to face her ex, Laurie, who is high on her new power—and credit cards and shopping sprees—almost as much as she loves rubbing it all in Mira’s face. When Mira says, “I must have been the last person to find out about you and Herman,” Laurie responds, “because you’re scary and you scared me.” She doesn’t seem scary now. She seems desperate and a little weepy.
The first episode gets away with a lot of exposition, as Mira struggles to get inside her character’s head. She and René download their thoughts and a heap of facts about the original silent film and the actress, Musidora, who played Irma Vep, Mira’s predecessor and muse. They talk about the character’s vulnerability, which makes her all the more dangerous, about female empowerment and the sexiness of “villainesses.”
The HBO series is soapy, rife with the cast and crew’s bloated egos and problematical crushes and drug problems. Comedy springs from the off-screen drama and the insanity of Feuillades’ script, which René adheres to zealously. Everyone rolls their eyes and questions the credibility of its many implausible plot points. The show, Assayas’ show, is also highly addictive. We’ve gotta tune in to see what happens next. Intrigue is built around such subplots as an insurance company threatening to pull the plug because of René’s shaky mental health; an actor’s reliance on crack cocaine; another’s obsession with adding a sex scene with his ex, who’s also in the movie.
With enough wackiness and drama to fuel an actual soap opera, this could be light entertainment. But the focus is Mira’s artistic process. She enters shaky, vulnerable, and unsure of her ability to sell the character. Will the process of becoming this dangerous woman who takes outrageous risks for the thrill cure her, or ruin her?
Irma Vep has many layers, the various versions playing off each other like waves in the ocean. The show is a love letter to cinema. Black-and-white footage from Les Vampires is threaded throughout, setting up scenes being shot that day, punctuating conversations, frustrating actors who don’t understand their characters’ motivations and inspiring others, most notably Mira. In one breathtaking scene, Mira is struggling with choreography, only to be suddenly filled with the spirit of Irma Vep. She takes off dancing and twirling, as ethereal as she is scary, in a room full of light. The choreographer is bowled over by her raw passion and power, and so are we.
Andrea Meyer has written creative treatments for commercial directors, a sex & the movies column for IFC, and a horror screenplay for MGM. Her first novel, Room for Love (St. Martin’s Press) is a romantic comedy based on an article she wrote for the New York Post, for which she pretended to look for a roommate as a ploy to meet men. A long-time film and entertainment journalist and former indieWIRE editor, Andrea has interviewed more actors and directors than she can remember. Her articles and essays have appeared in such publications as Elle, Glamour, Variety, Time Out NY, and the Boston Globe.