Olivier Assayas Revisits ‘Irma Vep’

Youf you’d made one of the most poetic and modern-feeling films of the 1990s—a romance about the way art can steal from you as much as it bestows, as well as a reflection on the changing landscape of filmmaking itself—whatever would possess you to revisit it as a TV series in 2022? If you’ve seen Olivier Assayas’ magnificent and haunting 1996 almost-comedy Irmavep—starring Maggie Cheung as a Hong Kong superstar, a version of herself, embarking on an ill-fated remake of Louis Feuillade’s 1916 crime serial Les Vampires—you might be asking that very question right now.

The answer is wrapped within the elegant, deadpan pleasures of Assayas’ revisited Irma VepThe eight-part HBO/A24 Coproduction will stream on HBO Max from June 6th. Assayas—the brainy maestro behind films like the sun-dappled elegy Sommer HoursThe futuristic brain-messer/upper Demonlover, Kristen Stewart’s ghost story Personal shopper—is one of the most imaginative and challenging French filmmakers of the past 30 years. This new film is now available for purchase. Irmavep he hasn’t so much remade his earlier film as turned it inside out, expanding some ideas and collapsing others, inventing new characters and subplots, and adapting some of his earlier questions about art and obsession to our weird new age. Instead of replacing the earlier film—what could?—the new Irmavep is a sort of reset, a way of taking stock of how far we’ve come, and of brokering a truce with certain forms and technologies that are not going away.

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Assayas’s first episode follows the structure of 1996 movie: Mira (Alicia Vikander), a rebellious American star who recently completed a super-blockbuster called Doomsday, hopes to rekindle her mojo by taking a role in a limited TV series, to be shot in Paris, by a director she reveres, René Vidal (the marvelously neurotic Vincent Macaigne). She still has to press the blockbuster’s big and dumb title before she can begin the project. Upon her arrival in Paris, she’s dismayed to find that Doomsday’s director is also in town, accompanied by his slinky new wife, Laurie (Adria Arjona, recently seen in the ill-fated Morbius), who used to be Mira’s assistant—as well as her lover.

Mira attempts to stay cool. She’s both excited by the idea of her new enterprise and rattled by her new surroundings, as well as by the people who barge into and out of her orbit. They include an ex, Tom Sturridge’s fellow actor Eamonn, who she might have kicked too early; a smart and stylish costume designer who may have designed on Mira, Zoe (Jeanne Balibar), with her take no prisoners cheekbones); as well as Gottfried (a brilliantly laid Lars Eidinger), a fun supporting performer who arrives at the station in messy eyeliner and wearing a rough leopard coat desperate for some crack. Meanwhile, Mira’s gloriously poker-faced New assistant, recent film-school-grad Regina (played with insouciance by Devon Ross), keeps one hawk-eye on her boss’s schedule while taking in a little Gilles Deleuze with the other. Regina is a good observer, but she betrays very little.

Amid all the distractions, Mira strives to stay focused on her work, and to do justice to her character, originally played by the ravishing amphora-shaped silent-film star Musidora who, as René explains, was her era’s antidote to the squeaky-clean image of the damsel in distress. You can read more about Mira. Les VampiresAs Irma Vep (Parisian thief extraordinaire), she walked through Paris wearing a velvet catsuit. She was a confident, sexual presence. Mira is wearing a similar outfit and we watch her glide along the corridors in an eerie, nocturnal sequence. Assayas compares Mira to Cheung, 1996 Irma Vep. Elsewhere, Assayas seems to take great pleasure in going even further back, melding Feuillade’s vision with René’s, showing how the past can blur into the present until BothModernity seems like a snowball that is constantly rolling towards the future. These scenes are beautifully imagined, Musidora’s foxy vitality melting into Mira’s moody vibrance before our every eyes.

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Both the recent past and days long past are never far from Assayas’s mind. The 1996 Irmavep Celluloid with its warmth and fragility was losing ground to digital. This was partially why the film was made. Today, Assayas still hasn’t given up on the old, but he knows there are good reasons to make way for the new: René uses an iPhone to show Mira a clip from Feuillade’s 105-year-old serial, the images flickering in their tiny window like temporary captives that can never be fully contained. René, like the obsessive filmmaker of the 1996 Irma Vep played by Jeanne-Pierre Léaud, is just one stress point away from a breakdown. He is at risk of losing his show. (He’d failed to reveal to the insurers that he’s taking antidepressants, which allow him to function.) On set, he knows exactly what he wants, but when he emerges into the real world, he’s lost: the cloth tote that droops from his shoulder as he treks around the city is an apt metaphor for his precarious mental state.

Assayas channels some autobiographical introspection through René’s character, perhaps as a means of parsing some of his own feelings about Cheung, to whom he was married for a few years after the completion of Irmavep. At one point, René has a vivid and unsettling dream visitation from His ex-wife, who had starred in hisVersions of earlier films Irma Vep.They dream about their breakup and retrace some of their scars. In a series that’s almost ridiculously, if enjoyably, meta, the scene hits with an arrow’s piercing snap. Everyone travels with their own ghosts, especially filmmakers playing filmmakers who just can’t help themselves from remaking, revisiting, reshaping.

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René, clinging not just to his personal past but also to the past tense of filmmaking, keeps insisting that his current project is “not a series. Because I don’t do series! It’s a film, admittedly a bit long, divided into eight parts.” OK, whatever—this is what Assayas seems to be saying, too. (His 2010 Carlos,It was a mini-series on Venezuelan terrorist Carlos The Jackal that was broadcast to television. (Hardcore Assayasites, and probably Assayas themselves, still consider it a film. As self-referentially as the 2022. Irmavep is—it includes cameos from the likes of Nathalie Richard, the Zoe of the original film, who appears to have aged barely a day—you don’t need to have seen the 1996 film to enjoy it. If Vikander doesn’t have Cheung’s hypnotic allure, she wins us over with the vulnerability beneath her character’s confident veneer. She’s a traveler on a journey, hardly naïve, but not old enough to know everything either.

Assayas too is on a sluggish path and unable to give up his old preoccupations despite new opportunities. Even though so much art seems less interesting, he still seeks out the reasons why, even though it’s becoming increasingly difficult to do so. He will never tire of asking questions to which there’s no answer—he has spent a career doing so—and if you were to thread those questions into even some quasi-logical arrangement, they would constitute a series you’d barely be able to wrap your brain around. It could be called a film. Although it is quite long and divided into several parts, you can still call it that. And you could watch it on an iPhone—but why on Earth would you want to?

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