Irma Vep Review: A Playful, Postmodern Remake of Oliver Assayas’s Breakthrough

The series leans into the absurdity of trying to find creative expression in an industry that’s in a perpetual state of reinvention.

Irma Vep
Photo: Carole Bethuel/HBO

Over the course of his celebrated career, writer-director Oliver Assayas has used his work as a means of exploring everything from the pain that comes with living to what the cinema was and what it still could be. In 1996’s Irma Vep, the filmmaker reflects on nothing less on the French filmmaking industry by way of the story of Maggie Cheung, as herself, being cast in a remake of Louis Feuillades’s classic silent serial Les Vampires.

Certainly, in a digital age where film studios and streamers seem to value blockbusters that rarely have a clear artistic identity, it’s understandable why Assayas was compelled to re-tell this showbiz satire. In the form of a limited series, commentary on the studio system ostensibly has the space to blossom even more vigorously and expansively. The result is a playful, personal work that expands on his original film in new and meaningful ways.

Starring Alicia Vikander as Mira, an American actress who’s bored of appearing in the impersonal blockbusters that made her into a household name, this Irma Vep plays out in a similar fashion as the original over the course of its first episode. Mira quickly discovers that the Les Vampires remake is beset with difficulties, not least her self-important co-star, Edmond Lagrange (Vincent Lacoste). The production’s director, René Vidal (Vincent Macaigne), is neurotic and overzealous, but his passion also appeals to Mira. Across scenes where the director and his new muse discuss their ambitions and inspirations, it’s very easy to see Assayas drawing from the well of personal experience, namely his collaborations with Kristen Stewart, The Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper.

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Especially in increasingly pointed dialogue exchanges, this Irma Vep really leans into the absurdity of trying to find room for creative and personal expression in an industry that’s in a perpetual state of reinvention. At the same time, Assayas never lets the series get too bogged down in the nitty-gritty details of keeping a big-budget production in motion.

Beyond drawing comparisons between René and himself and Mira and his past muses, Assayas empathetically addresses how actors get lost and see their careers stall in the Hollywood machine. Among the personalities that fill out the show’s frame is a hot-shot Hollywood agent, played by Carrie Brownstein, who adamantly wants Mira to ditch her Irma Vep catsuit and play a superhero in Marvel’s upcoming reboot of The Silver Surfer. And speaking of reinvention, just when you think that Mira couldn’t be any more torn between her personal desires and her professional ambitions, she encounters her former assistant and ex-lover, Laurie (Adria Arjona), and their feelings for each other are reignited.

How does one find the tricky balance between art and commerce? Is there any way to find broad appeal in something that’s meant to be personal? If so, does it require troubled souls and the ghosts that haunt us to make something truly profound? It’s a credit to Assayas’s willingness as a creator to dig ever deeper into his experience as a filmmaker and person that this remake of a remake telling the story of a remake of a remake finds such original and organic material to mine—and does so with such a personal touch.

Score: 
 Cast: Alicia Vikander, Adria Arjona, Carrie Brownstein, Tom Sturridge, Fala Chen, Devon Ross, Byron Bowers, Vincent Macaigne, Jeanne Balibar, Lars Eidinger, Vincent Lacoste  Network: HBO

Will Ashton

Will Ashton is a freelance entertainment writer based in Pittsburgh, PA. He studied journalism and film at Ohio University, and his writing can be found in a variety of print and online publications, including Slate, Indiewire, Insider, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, CinemaBlend, and Collider. He also co-hosts the weekly film review podcast, Cinemaholics, alongside Jon Negroni.

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