HBO’s ‘Irma Vep’ Is Olivier Assayas’ Refined Reflection on the Madness of Filmmaking
HBO’s “Irma Vep” breezily turns the concept of a “remake” on its head. French auteur Olivier Assayas is technically taking a film he made in 1996 of the same name and transforming it into an updated limited series. We’ve seen this done over and over for years now in these times where the past is constantly mined for reboots. That a director like Assayas, so renowned for his devotion to independent filmmaking, would indulge in such a modern trend might be surprising at first. Then, you begin watching the series and realize how it makes rather brilliant sense. Assayas delivers here a unique, pleasantly absorbing eight-part work that comments on itself and the very nature of filmmaking. It’s also a fun take on the collective quirks of putting anything together with a diverse group of people.
Alicia Vikander plays Mira, an actor on the rise who has been featured in several hits, including a box office smash titled “Apocalypse.” She’s looking to branch out into more serious fare and has been cast in “Irma Vep,” a remake of a classic 1916 silent French film, “Les Vampires.” The director is a typical, anxiety-prone diva named René Vidal (Vincent Macaigne), who has become so manic the studio can barely guarantee insurance. Adding tension is that the project also forces Mira to interact with her ex, another actor named Laurie (Adria Arjona), who is now married. As the shoot carries on, getting it done becomes as challenging as explaining the logic of René’s bizarre script. Mira feels pulled between wanting to make genuine art and getting offered lucrative franchises, while the crew battle with making things happen. Cast members like Gottfried (Lars Eidinger) could fall into comatose states if they don’t get a crack fix.
“Irma Vep” completely defines meta but with one of the year’s most playful, richly enjoyable takes. Before anything else, Assayas is essentially commenting on himself. René is making a limited series based on a movie he made years before, which led to a doomed relationship. Assayas has rarely gotten this biographical, at least when it comes to the very project he’s making. In a bitingly funny scene, the director goes to see a doctor and clarifies that this is not a limited series, but a “long film cut into eight parts.” It’s a witty jab at Peak TV, where every show has to be a lengthy arthouse production. This series is dropping just as “Stranger Things” releases a season where every episode is feature film length. Mira’s agent, Zelda (Carrie Brownstein), keeps calling to push the actor to accept a role in the sequel to “Silver Surfer,” because everyone knows you’re the real deal once you’ve made a superhero movie. Assayas elegantly packs commentary into the dialogue or plot. Mira may not want to be seen as another face on a franchise, yet she’s in a remake of “Les Vampires,” a real film by Louis Feuillade which was the equivalent of a suspense thriller in its time. There’s a fantastic discussion in the third episode about how silent filmmakers were trying to make popular content just as much as today’s popcorn directors.
For fans of Assayas’s work, “Irma Vep” is like a buffet of everything that is notable about his voice. The original “Irma Vep,” which starred Maggie Cheung, was a delightful satire filmed in a grainy, low-budget style. Over the years Assayas has developed a rich tone best captured in meditative dramas like “Personal Shopper” and “Clouds of Sils Maria,” which are linked in having strong female leads in Kristen Stewart and Juliet Binoche. Even when Assayas has dabbled in more mainstream movies, like the Netflix Cuban spy thriller “Wasp Network,” he still makes them his own. One of his best films, “Carlos,” about the exploits of ‘70s terrorist Carlos the Jackal, clocks in at five hours. This backdrop all feeds into the new “Irma Vep,” as Assayas now tells the story with a more assured style and greater insights into the filmmaking process. The satire and humor are so light there’s rarely a sense of exaggeration when René’s producer, Gregory (Alex Descas) fights to keep his temper in check with an unstable director or demanding crew members. When Mira asks the director about the weird logic in a scene, his fumbling explanations are written in a way where we have no doubt this must happen constantly on projects where the idea outruns the approach.
For Alicia Vikander this is a career-best role in a catalog that does indeed span action escapism to notable arthouse roles. She almost seems to be having a breath of fresh air interpreting the highs and lows of filmmaking, including in the more introspective moments where Mira ponders her career or has a verbal standoff with Laurie. She’s a traveler through another collective undertaking, like anyone who makes movies and shows. When Vikander wears the trademark black suit of her character, walking over rooftops like a vampiric thief, it can work like an endearing wink at her own career choices such as “Tomb Raider.” At times, Assayas intercuts what are meant to be actual scenes from the show being filmed, as if to say that despite all the madness, the effort can be worth it. Even making bad movies is hard work. We can sense the real affection in small moments where an actor is being fit into their period clothing, despite Gottfried complaining he looks like a gigolo. Mira has to embody her role while also dealing with heartbreak and longing, which intermingle into her work. In such ways few shows embody the creative process like this series that goes down like a fine wine.
“Irma Vep” premieres June 6 and airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.