SERIES REVIEW – A man whose life is cinema can often be marked by his profession for the rest of his life. “Time doesn’t heal,” says Tom Sturridge of the scars left on us in Olivier Assayas‘ fascinating and engaging new HBO limited series Irma Vep, which also takes us inside the world of filmmaking revealing behind-the-scenes secrets of the lives of filmmakers and stars with often acerbic humour. Although only one episode is yet to air on HBO Max, we’ve already watched five episodes thanks to HBO screeners (sent out before release).
“Time only buries the pain, but the wounds remain.” This may sound cliché at first, but it perfectly sums up Assayas’ directorial statement. The creative work of filmmaking can often be a vulnerable, agonising endeavour; sometimes, the struggles to create and fulfil a creative vision can give birth to traumas and ghosts that haunt us for years.
The meta of meta
The original “Irma Vep” was Assayas’ breakthrough international film. The film starring Maggie Cheung was also meta, and this new version is now the “meta of meta”. 1996’s Irma Vep is about a French studio remaking Louis Feuillade’s 1916 subversive silent classic Les Vampires, with an international star (Cheung) who doesn’t speak French and is alienated by the experience.
“Irma Vep” was also about the precarious boundaries between fiction and reality and how art and truth often blur together. In this film, Jean-Pierre Léaud, the director of the film-who, not coincidentally and by allusion, played the director in François Truffaut’s “Night and Day”, one of the best metafilms of all time-began to fall in love with its protagonist. In the irony of art becoming a reality, Assayas fell in love with Maggie Cheung, married her two years after the film’s release and divorced her shortly afterwards. Life imitates art, and art imitates life.
American female film star on the run from break-up to an art film
“Irma Vep” (2022), HBO’s new six-episode limited series produced by A24, follows much of the same story and plot but initially focuses on the star and her perspective. Rather than focusing on an international actor, Alicia Vikander (the latest Lara Croft in Tomb Raider) plays Mira, an American star disillusioned with her career – perhaps the industry – and licking her wounds from a recent break-up with her former assistant Laurie (Adria Arjona).
Desperate for a change and an artistic challenge, Mira – despite the protests of her materialistic agent (the great Carrie Brownstein), who tries to convince her to make a bundle by starring in Marvel’s new “Silver Surfer” – hopes to transform her personality – and herself – in the French production of “Irma Vep”, a remake of the aforementioned silent film series.
Film in the film
But the direction of “Irma Vep”, the film within the film, has many problems, as filmmaking is meant to have those. On the one hand, like the original – but more emphatically and much funnier – René Vidal (Vincent Macaigne) is a neurotic director with self-esteem issues and a passionate and often neurotic manner with his actors. Vidal may be creating art, often reckless, irresponsible, and twitching with nervousness, but he has poor control over his mental health and the film itself.
Worse still, Vidal is constantly fighting with one of his insufferable egotists, Edmond Lagrange (Vincent Lacoste), who is also frequently hysterical and somewhat understandably always trying to make his character not look stupid and trying to make his motivations more logical and not incomprehensible in almost every scene. In a re-enactment of the original film, a myriad of personal and practical problems arise, including several people – men and women – who fall in love with the female star of the series, Mira.
The cast of the series deserves special recognition. In addition to the aforementioned Alicia Vikander, Vincent Macaigne and Vincent Lacoste, we must mention Lars Eidinger as the drug-addicted German star playing one of the vampire criminals; Devon Ross as Vikander’s sensual and erotically overwrought new assistant; Jeanne Balibar, the seductive costume designer; Alex Descas, one of the demanding producers; and Nora Hamzawi, Vidal’s exasperated first assistant who is increasingly driven mad by her psychoneurotic director.
“It’s not a series; it’s a 10-hour film”
So the series is a meta on the cube, as mentioned above, and constant self-reflection is sometimes a little tiresome but gradually becomes funnier and more endearing. Irma Vep is also a scratchy parody of the snobbery of art filmmakers, which is well characterised by the regularly recurring claim that “it’s not a series, it’s a 10-hour film”, a claim most often made by the director, which is sometimes humbly parroted by his crew, but which no one dares to challenge (at least not before him.)
The juxtaposition of art and commerce is not only thematically present in the series but is also the central message of the series, only couched in a self-deprecating way. Of course, the money-hungry producers are also put on the spot: one greedy and arrogant financier, for example, only gave money to Irma Vep to encourage Mira to be the face of his company’s new Dior-like campaign for a French luxury fashion house.
Visually and musically exciting
Irma Vep is also visually exciting, using both modern and evocative imagery of the last millennium. Reviving the scenes from the 1916 film and juxtaposing them with their modern versions is particularly exciting.
The series is cleverly and enjoyably self-reflexive both visually and musically: indie-rockers Sonic Youth and Luna composed much of the original soundtrack, creating a sound that is both aggressive and dreamlike.
Irma Vep could easily get lost in all these self-reflexive layers, but the most remarkable feat of the series is the veteran director’s steady hand at keeping the proportions even while offering a highly entertaining and witty glimpse into the world of filmmaking and the lives of the stars.