Even with a Timely HBO Remake, 'Irma Vep' Is Still Punchy
Olivier Assayas updates his experimental French classic about a film set gone wrong.
Acting is, inherently, a bizarre profession that attracts possibly the widest range of people and personalities into its orbit. There are the actors themselves, who vary in intensity from those who easily keep their work and their home lives separate to those who try to Method-act on the sets of superhero movies. There are the directors, control freaks or collaborators or both. There are the crew, the assistants, the writers, the financing agents, everyone else drawn to the most powerful artistic industry in the world who can somehow take a story from a screenplay to a finished film or TV show and release it into the world.
It's no surprise, then, that people can't stop making movies about making movies. Films and series about the industry itself, even if they're not necessarily good, are always interesting, often a peephole into the inner workings of it all, the anxieties and trials that are part and parcel of an industry with so many moving parts. It's hard and it's annoying and it's weird.
One of the best pieces of art about the act of creating art is French writer-director Olivier Assayas' 1996 film Irma Vep, which follows a few days on the set of a film whose director is slowly losing his mind. (It's available on HBO Max and The Criterion Channel.) Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung plays a version of herself who has been cast in a remake of Les Vampires, a famous French silent serial from 1915-16 about a group of violent criminals, one of whom is the mesmerizing catsuit-clad villainess Irma Vep. As director René Vidal (played by French cinema legend Jean-Pierre Léaud) succumbs to his anxiety, the separation between Maggie and the character she's supposed to play starts to blur. Throughout it all, the carousel dance of a film set pokes and prods at our main characters, shuttling them to psychiatrists' offices and Parisian apartment buildings and raves on the backs of motor scooters.
The film is very much a product of the '90s, strewn with the day's pop-culture references and name-dropping directors like Ridley Scott, as well as paying homage to the previous era of French cinema, to which movies like Irma Vep are exceedingly deferential. There is an overwhelming anxiety to much of it: Cheung's fish-out-of-water experience as a Chinese action/sci-fi actress tossed into the world of French art cinema played against constant talk about the state of "modern" filmmaking, especially when compared to the high points of the past. The film is about a production of a remake of a classic, after all. It's natural to be self-conscious.
Given all of this, it's hilarious that Assayas himself is "remaking" his film, this time as an HBO series starring Alicia Vikander in the Maggie Cheung role and set in the modern day. Vikander plays Mira, an American actress who has traveled to France to star as, yes, Irma Vep, in a miniseries version of Les Vampires—in other words, a television series about a remake of a movie serial that is itself a remake of a movie about a remake of the same serial. You can understand how reality starts to bend around a concept like that.
The new series is just as sharp and acidic as the original film, with more than a few digs at the modern entertainment industry sandwiched between overdramatic "dailies" of the show-within-a-show and Mira's trips from set to set to costume department to house party to photo shoot to sexually charged visits with ex-lovers. Her agent (a harried Carrie Brownstein) constantly texts Mira pleas to abandon this doomed art project and come back to the United States for the newest superhero installment. "No, they are not long movies," one character says in response to an argument about whether television is as pure an art form as film. "They are content. Industrial entertainment ruled by algorithms." (That settles it: Olivier Assayas is definitely on Film Twitter, where directors comparing their TV program to an eight-hour movie are routinely lambasted.)
Probably the most iconic image from any iteration of Irma Vep, be it the original played by the French actress Musidora, Cheung's characterization, or Vikander's, is the catsuit, originally made of silk in 1915, which Assayas updates to latex in the 1996 film, setting a costume fitting inside a BDSM fetish shop. In the HBO version, Vikander's Irma wears one made of black velvet, which fits her lithe softness: Her Irma Vep is like an animal, fuzzy and dangerous. She admires her character's power, especially as everyone around her treats her like a pet to be manipulated or a sexual object to be exploited, and often slips away from sets while wearing the suit just for the thrill of stealing a credit card or a piece of jewelry. Just as "Irma Vep" is an anagram of "vampire," "Mira" is an anagram of "Irma," and the more the barrier between her and her character starts to dissolve, the harder it is to tell which is which.