“I don’t really care about movies,” the man says, nervously wringing his hands together. “I used to…but not anymore. Maybe it’ll come back?” It’s not an uncommon sentiment to hear in the Year of Our Lord 2022. What makes that comment stand out, however, is that it’s being delivered by a French filmmaker who’s sitting on the set of his latest movie. He’s admitting this to the A-list American star he’s just met and has employed, at great expense, to play the lead in it. The young woman smiles and nods; she’s been looking for a project that’s more personal than the generic blockbusters that made her famous. The duo have gathered together — along with a motley film crew and many personal assistants and some extremely troubled, narcissistic fellow actors and anxious producers and any number of peripheral parasites — to make an elaborate TV show that remakes a beloved indie film that centered around the attempt to adapt a popular silent serial about a female criminal mastermind. Any similarities to real artworks, and/or actual people living or dead, is anything but coincidental.
A hall of mirrors sitting squarely in the center of another, slightly more cracked hall of mirrors, HBO Max’s Irma Vep finds both its fictional creator — a stammering, mercurial auteur named Rene Vidal (Vincent Macaigne) — and its IRL writer-director Oliver Assayas in the middle of a serious existential funk. (It began streaming on June 6th; the third of eight episodes drops tonight.) When Assayas made his 1996 feature Irma Vep, the former-critic-turned-filmmaker was only five movies deep into what turn out to be one of the most vital, rewarding and unpredictable careers in world cinema. But he was already fretting over the health of the art form, and his desire to glance backwards at the old, weird French classics was admittedly his way of trying to rekindle a creative spark. The story of a Hong Kong superstar (played by Hong Kong superstar and future Assayas spouse Maggie Cheung), who comes to France to star in an ill-fated remake of Louis Feulliade’s 1916 pulp epic Les Vampires, it was a backstage farce, an art-imitates-then-consumes-life drama and a woozy, state-of-the-nation address about cinema as an expressive medium. It’s still a strong contender for his best work to date, which is no small feat.
What Assayas is trying to do via this revisitation is not so much a remake but a spirit-of’22 remix, in which the original’s lyricism, the grace notes and the blanc-noise dissonance are filtered through today’s disposable, end-of-days industrial landscape. The results aren’t pretty, even when they’re breathtaking; if there’s a more succinct critique of how everything from masterpieces to hot messes have been reduced to “content” then the first episode’s shot of Feulliade’s surreal imagery viewed on an iPhone, I have yet to see it. Some particulars remain essentially the same: A non-French superstar, in this case an American named Mira (Swedish actor Alicia Vikander), journeys to the City of Light to shoot a new version of an old proto-superhero-flick gem and put her stamp on a well-known character. What happens in front of the camera plays into what’s happening behind it, and vice versa. The lines between real and recreated, genius and madness, get blurrier by the second. Things fall apart and the center cannot hold.
Its digs at celebrity culture and social media, TV-versus-movies arguments and the streaming wars, the necessity of intimacy co-ordinators and the need for intellectual properties as sure-thing source materials — you can’t spell “Irma Vep” without I.P. — feel very of the moment, even when the jabs fall somewhere between satire and shaking fists at clouds. Soap opera elements involving Mira’s past relationship with an assistant (Adria Arjona) and a possible future one with the movie’s costume-department head (the great Jeanne Balibar) bump up against a subplot involving a crack-addicted German performer (Lars Eidinger). A later episode involving a steamy sequence between Vep and her male criminal rival turns into a lunchroom referendum on whether or not the sequence depicts a sexual assault. For good measure, we get both long clips of the original serial and snippets from the autobiography of original Irma, mono-monikered actor Musidora, which are brought to life by the cast of the current production.
Much like Cheung’s fish-out-of-water star, Vikander’s Mira (dig that anagram) is caught in a cultural vortex that both excites and confuses her. And though she doesn’t quite share her predecessor’s overwhelming screen presence and charisma, the Ex Machina star still knows how to use silence to good effect when slinking around in a catsuit through hallways and across Parisian rooftops. We don’t mean that in a drooling, prurient way. It’s more that Vikander shows the seductive quality of Mira trying a character on for size and realizing the slippery Vep persona is more of a skintight fit than she’d realized.
Unlike the ’96 version, however, the onscreen director here is not played by a middle-aged French icon like Jean-Pierre Leaud but a person who greatly resembles Assayas himself, down to his searching cadences and rumbled boho wardrobe. And that key difference turns so much of Irma Vep 2.0 into a sort of self-portrait as damning self-own. Should you start to wonder whether Rene really is a peer-to-peer screen counterpart, a scene in his therapist’s office brings up the fact that Vidal not only made a critically praised movie about redoing Les Vampires in the 1990s — he also cast a famous Asian actor, fell in love with her and watched their marriage fall apart. His declaration that he didn’t cast a Chinese starlet for this new version because “it would bring up to many memories” feels like you’re hearing a confession in stereo. Ditto a later sequence in which a fictional character clearly based on Cheung shows up in Rene’s dreams, and the two of them dissect what went wrong with their relationship. It’s as if Assayas is trying to have a conversation with his ex that he couldn’t have in real life via this “movie in eight parts” (which is what Vidal calls his serialized take on a serialized story that’s stuck in an actual serialized TV limited series, because, well, never mind).
There’s also the odd frisson of Vikander’s Mira, a sexually fluid star who’s tired of making ridiculous multiplex fare and yearns to dig into more substantial, daring work, bearing more than a passing resemblance at times to someone who Assayas has worked with in the past. And that one of Mira’s old flames, a British actor named Eamonn (Tom Sturridge) — he’s also in town making a Blade Runner remake, but without the replicants, the sci-fi elements or the rain, because “none of those things tested well” — could possibly be construed as being loosely based on someone as well. What this sometimes playful, sometimes moody Irma Vep gives us is less a tabloid fan-fic guessing game, however, than its creator’s own neurosis and fears about where he’s been, where the art form he’s obsessed over is going and what happens to cinephiles if cinema reaches its last-gasp phase.
The movies have always been an unstable proposition, not to mention one governed by questionable starfuckery, bottom-line draconianism, big egos and bad behavior. It balanced that out with imagination, humanism, communal bonding and creative expression. Is all that’s left now, the show casually wonders, nothing but tail-chomping snakes and the almighty algorithm? Will we care about the movies again? The future is bleak. Best to get a streaming deal and travel back into the past.