You don’t need to have seen Louis Feuillade’s seminal silent serial Les Vampires to watch Olivier Assayas’ upcoming HBO series Irma Vep, about a French director remaking Les Vampires. You probably don’t need to have watched Olivier Assayas’ 1996 film Irma Vep, also about a French director remaking Les Vampires.
Or maybe you do? Assayas’ new Irma Vep, in which the director character is now adapting Les Vampires as a TV series having previously made it as an artsy feature, is an entertainment industry satire, but it’s really an internal conversation about evolutions in modern storytelling. And it’s probably one thing if you’re watching simply for star Alicia Vikander — never more relaxed or gracefully slinky — and a completely different thing if you’re as eager to talk about French cinema and the works of Olivier Assayas as Olivier Assayas so clearly is.
The Bottom Line
Vikander is a treat in a cleverly and (exhaustingly) meta series.
Airdate: 9 p.m. Monday, June 6 (HBO)
Cast: Alicia Vikander, Vincent Macaigne, Jeanne Balibar, Devon Ross, Lars Eidinger, Vincent Lacoste, Nora Hamzawi, Adria Arjona, Carrie Brownstein, Tom Sturridge, Byron Bowers, Fala Chen, Hippolyte Girardot, Alex Descas, Antoine Reinartz
Creator/Director: Olivier Assayas
This Irma Vep is loose and intellectually loopy, broad and jokey one moment and wallowing in sad self-absorption the next. One might compare it to the current season of HBO’s Barry, only with more pretensions, which definitely isn’t a bad thing — though I’m not sure after the three episodes (out of eight total) premiering at this year’s Cannes Film Festival if Assayas has a conclusive point he wants to make, or if he’s just noodling again on an art form in perpetual transition.
Vikander plays Mira, a Hollywood star finishing a promotional tour for her new superhero movie, Doomsday. After a couple of less successful films, Doomsday is a hit and she’s riding the momentum to Les Vampires, while her agent (Carrie Brownstein’s Zelda) would prefer that she sign on for an upcoming reboot of The Silver Surfer. But Mira and her new Gilles Deleuze-reading assistant Regina (Devon Ross) are intrigued by the series writer-director Rene Vidal (Vincent Macaigne).
Mira is also looking for a way to avoid reminders that her ex-girlfriend and ex-assistant Laurie (Adria Arjona) is newly married.
In Assayas’ 1996 Irma Vep, Rene (Jean-Pierre Léaud) was a New Wave burnout attracted to remaking the crime thriller in part because of the fetishism of working with actress Maggie Cheung (glorious as a version of herself) in the main character’s trademark catsuit. Here, he’s haunted by layers of the past, both the towering legacy of the original and his own remake. Rene’s series is so strictly devoted to Feuillade’s original that none of the actors, with their modern psychologies, can understand the motivations of any of their characters, which amusingly frustrates the director.
If this is already sounding too meta for you, there’s no harm in just sticking to the silly farce of something like Netflix’s Call My Agent! But if you’re following the layers and maybe even thinking that the dynamics of erotic obsession between a star and her agent sounds a lot like Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, then this is for you. And if you’re amused by the idea of a director arguing with a doctor about whether his eight-part limited series is television or one lengthy movie? You’re the target demographic here. Whatever wait-and-see reservations I might have, I certainly am.
Assayas has his characters discussing things like the subtext of zombie movies, the newfound importance of intimacy coordinators, the rise of online media, Harvey Weinstein and more industry hot-button topics than I could possibly list here. Plus, there’s at least one good Emily in Paris joke. There’s no real sense of depth to any of it yet, but that could still emerge.
It’s a lot of talk, but with Assayas, it’s never without complementary style, in a series that augments its central behind-the-scenes filming in and around a grounded, minimally romanticized Paris with footage from the 1916 series and highly stylized rushes from the series that Rene is making.
Macaigne is one of several Assayas ensemble regulars appearing here — including Jeanne Balibar as the show’s costumer Zoe and Nora Hamzawi as first assistant director Carla — and he gives the performance that best straddles the show’s themes of comic and tragic artistic expression. He’s confused and disoriented in his present and increasingly lost in his past, factors that apparently make him really hard to insure. Also contributing humor are Vincent Lacoste and especially Lars Eidinger, another Assayas favorite, as actors whose insecurities and addictions could cripple the series.
Everything is built around Vikander, in a role that makes expert use of the star’s ballet-trained physicality. There’s a palpable eroticism to her scenes with Arjona in the premiere and later episodes hint at the in-character obsession that was so crucial to the 1996 movie, but mostly the performance is just wonderfully light and open — not in any way the parody of the movie starlet on a foreign set one might expect. Then again, the way the movie gained richness from Cheung as an outsider on the edge of exhaustion and alienation feels missing here so far.
Television hasn’t been unkind to Assayas. It helped launch his career, and he earned an Emmy nomination for the often remarkable miniseries Carlos. Maybe that’s why this new Irma Vep doesn’t yet feel like it’s prepared to commit to lampooning or lionizing television. I’m curious to watch more, and even more interested to have Assayas return to variations on this story every few years. If audiences watch this HBO series, maybe in 2030 he’ll do something about a French director remaking Les Vampires as a series of Quibis.
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