The Meta-Return of ‘Irma Vep’

Olivier Assayas reshoots his 90s arthouse movie about movies into a satirical HBO miniseries about movies

When ascendant American star Mira (Alicia Vikander), fresh off a bad breakup, takes on a project with her dream director René Vidal (Vincent Macaigne), she descends once again into the cesspool of neuroses and incestuous relationships that define just about any collective art project. This time, though, Mira may have bitten off more than she can chew. The project is a remake of a silent-era serial called Les Vampires, and Mira has the plum role of Irma Vep, an enigmatic and malicious muse to a criminal gang.

Mira eagerly jumps into character; the first time she tests her velvet-catsuit costume she promptly nicks someone’s credit card. Her costars are equally off-balance. The ostensibly heroic Edmond (Vincent Lacoste) scummily demands René add a sex scene with Edmond’s ex “to show their passion”; villainous Gottfried (Lars Eidinger) is a deeply cynical, barely functional substance abuse problem, chain-vaping his way between hits off a crack pipe. Everyone, even the crew on the film-within-a-film, wears their weaknesses on their sleeves, in a way that makes you wonder if they can possibly ever get anything done, much less finish an eight-part TV series.

If any of this seems naggingly familiar to you, and you’re a fan of ’90s arthouse cinema, you’re right! Assayas has done this project once before, as the 1996 film of the same title. That version starred Hong Kong actor Maggie Cheung, who later married and divorced Assayas. This lends some extra poignancy–and yet another dollop of meta–to a scene where René’s therapist confronts him about his unresolved issues with the project, which have led fictional René to remake his own (fictional) Irma Vep. So, yes, you’re watching a remake (or reboot?) of a film about the making of a remake of a seven-hour silent film. It’s one mockumentary crew away from collapsing entirely, but somehow it holds together.

Assayas is clearly writing what he knows, even if he sometimes none the wiser with the benefit of hindsight. No matter how many layers of irony he deploys, he wrings real pathos out of the show’s first-rate cast. More than just affecting, though, it’s deftly funny and nigh-uncomfortably sexy. And for a one-hour show, episodes of Irma Vep breeze by in sitcom time with nary a wasted minute. Kudos to all the producers who convinced HBO to shell out for what seems like a multimillion-dollar therapy project; kudos to Assayas and Vikander and the cast for making it so entertaining.

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Ryan Kallberg

Ryan Kallberg is a writer based in southern California. His work has appeared in The Onion, The A.V. Club and on E! Online. His checkered resumé includes stints as a professional poker player, reality television producer, and sandwich assembler.

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