It’s the first series in a while where I haven’t been tempted to ‘skip intro’. As a haunting Mdou Moctar track plays, a willowy figure in a catsuit runs across roofs, pirouettes, leaps. The animation is in inky blues and blacks, joined by splashes of bright fluorescent colour. As the names flash by—Denis Lenoir, Yorick Le Saux, Thurston Moore, François-Renaud Labarthe—you could make an educated guess that the final credit would be that of Olivier Assayas, even if you didn’t know the series was called Irma Vep.
When news broke that Assayas was making Irma Vep again, it seemed like a rare compromise to the age of reboot by one of the few willful directors left. He had already made Irma Vep in 1996, to great acclaim. Maggie Cheung played herself in the film, a Hong Kong star brought down to Paris by Jean-Pierre Léaud’s embattled director to star in a remake of Les Vampires, a silent French serial by Louis Feuillade (Assayas and Cheung subsequently married and divorced). It’s one of the great movies about making movies, and an acid look at the French film industry.
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Perhaps Assayas had to be cajoled a bit by HBO and A24 into revisiting his most famous work. But Irma Vep the series is hardly a regurgitation. Instead, as more and more layers of meta-narrative are piled on, one gets the feeling Assayas is thoroughly enjoying his first foray into TV. René Vidal, the director played by Vincent Macaigne in the series, is easier to imagine as a stand-in for Assayas than Leaud was: he’s an arthouse director who made a film called Irma Vep and was married to its star. We see scenes from the 1996 film—there’s even, briefly, a Cheung stand-in, played by Vivian Wu.
Mira (Alicia Vikander) is an American film star who’s been flown down to play the seductive vampire thief. She’s also doing publicity for a superhero movie she despises—and dealing with the fallout of her breakup with Laurie (Adria Arjona), her former assistant who ended up dating the superhero film director. She doesn’t find the going in Paris much easier. She’s a fan of René’s but the director is dealing with his own issues and the set is chaotic. She’s not over Laurie, or the actor she dumped to be with her, who’s having a baby with another woman. She’s being pushed by her agent to sign another superhero movie. And she feels the pressure of living up to the mythic Musidora’s performance as the original Irma Vep.
Like the American Jim Jarmusch, Assayas is a punk aesthete, a director with alternately edgy and refined tastes. In the 1996 film, he used ‘Tunic’ by Sonic Youth in a scene; this time, he has Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore do the score. He’s doesn’t direct like a 67-year-old—he’s too restless, and too interested in the ways his medium is changing. Like the film, this Irma Vep a mordant look at the changing state of cinema. Even René, an artsy holdout, must speak the language of streaming: ‘prestige show’, ‘bingeworthy’. Yet, he also insists—to the point of driving his crew crazy—on copying Feuillade’s scenes movement for movement. When he speaks of being sexually obsessed with The Avengers, it isn’t the Marvel movie he’s referring to but the ‘60s TV show. The present might be dreary, but the past will drive you to distraction or right over the edge.
It is not necessary at all to have watched the earlier Irma Vep (streaming on MUBI), or any other Assayas film, to enjoy this one. But it does help, for all this meta-ness is very much the point. When Mira and her agent argue over text, I was reminded of the messages flashing on the screen through Personal Shopper. There’s something of Kristen Stewart in Clouds of Sils Maria in Regina (Devon Ross), Mira’s eerily composed new assistant. Assayas fans will remember Macgaine from Non-Fiction, a 2018 film that cast a withering eye at modern publishing, much like this series looks quizzically at cinema. Even the desert blues of Ali Farka Toure in the 1996 Irma Vep find a replacement in Moctar’s ‘Ya Habibti’ here.
At the time of writing this, I have seen four episodes of the show; four more will drop on a weekly basis. It’s been more playful—and at times moving—than I expected, thanks to Assayas’ typically crisp direction and an exceptional cast. Vikander finds room in Mira for the fun, self-centered star and the easily overridden, jilted artist. Macaigne is beautifully weary, especially in the scenes with his therapist. Lars Eidinger has a showy turn as Mira’s dissolute co-star, but it’s Vincent Lacoste as another actor who bears the brunt of Rene’s indecision and gives the most nakedly needy performance in a film where everyone is going through some kind of artistic crisis. There’s a rumour of a Kristen Stewart cameo to come. I, however, will be hoping against hope for an appearance by the long-retired Maggie Cheung, who—Vikander’s charm notwithstanding—will always be my Irma Vep.
‘Irma Vep’ is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.
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