Irma Vep Filled with Recurring Moments from Olivier Assayas Films
HBO's Irma Vep is a remake and quasi-sequel to the original 1996 movie. It follows the already loose plot of the movie but uses its eight episodes to deal with more ideas, themes, and moments from writer-director Olivier Assayas' previous movies. It's a common trait in movies but rarely in TV shows.
A Tale of Two Irma Veps
In the original 1996 movie, Maggie Cheung, a Hong Kong movie star, comes to Paris to play Irma Vep in a remake of the French silent movie serial Les Vampires with a burned-out and unstable director named Rene Vidal (Jean-Pierre Leaud). She becomes an object of desire to various people, including the costume designer Zoe (played then by Nathalie Richard), whose advances she gently rebuffs. Maggie starts to inhabit the spirit of Irma Vep and starts sneaking around the rooftops of Paris to break free of the claustrophobic restrictions of the production, eavesdropping on people in their hotel rooms and even stealing a necklace.
In the miniseries, Alicia Vikander plays Mira Harberg, a Hollywood movie star who comes to Paris to play Irma Vep in a TV miniseries remake of Les Vampires with a burned-out and unstable director named Rene Vidal (Vincent Macaigne). She becomes an object of desire to various people, including the costume designer Zoe (played here by comedienne Jeanne Balibar), whose advances she gently rebuffs, though she admits she likes her. Mira is nursing a broken heart after the end of a toxic love affair with her former assistant Laurie (Adria Arjona), who has married Hollywood A-list director Herman, possibly to spite her. Mira's new assistant Regina (Devon Ross), also has a crush on her, and their relationship simmers with sexual tension. Mira starts to inhabit the spirit of Irma Vep and starts sneaking around the rooftops of Paris, eavesdropping on people in their hotel rooms and even stealing a necklace that was Herman's wedding gift to Laurie. In both the 1996 movie and the TV series, Alex Descas plays Grégory Desormeaux, the sternly practical producer. Desormeaux even trips and hurt his ankle in the same way his hero in Assayas' 19th Century family saga Sentimental Destiny does, for some reason.
Drunken, Chaotic Parties
Assayas has a reputation as one of the best directors of chaotic parties where emotions run amok, as seen in his early movie about troubled teens coming of age whose turmoil comes out at parties like Cold Water. In Irma Vep, he gives us two chaotic parties – a night-time get-together at a Parisian house hosted by Nathalie Richard in a cameo where debauched German actor Gottfried (Lars Eidinger) pisses off Zoe so much that she throws a drink in his face. Gottfried then gets so drunk and high that he starts collapsing all over the party and causing chaos. The second time occurs later at Gottfried's wrap party, where he makes an impassioned speech for filmmaking to be the Wild West again, a playground for bad boys and bad girls, spraying champagne at everyone and drunkenly wrecking a lawn chair.
The Importance of Creating Art
The debate over trying to create art against an increasingly soulless corporate industry has been a recurring thread in Assayas' movies, going all the way back to the 1996 movie as well as hist more recent movies like Clouds of Sils Maria and Non-Fiction. Rene has extended conversations with Mira about creating Art. Regina, a film school graduate, and cinephile, cites great directors and experimental movies and the subtexts of zombie movies with a slightly skeptical Mira when she talks about her own ambitions as an aspiring director. Mira has a heart-to-heart talk with Cynthia Khan (Fala Chen), an actress from Hong Kong cast as an accomplice and reflection of Irma Vep (and Maggie Cheung), about their careers as artists trying to create work that transcends commercial escapism. People talking about Art and creating Art under the shadow of soulless corporate business is a major theme in French movies and culture in general.
The Surreal Netherworld of Fame
In his later movies, Assayas developed an interest in fame as an existential and lonely state underneath the glamourous public appearances and privileges given to stars. Mira's relationship with her personal assistant Regina continues themes from Clouds of Sils Maria, which featured Juliet Binoche as a middle-aged star, and her love-hate relationship with her personal assistant, played by Kristin Stewart, as they debate and argue over the former's increasingly limited options as she gets older. Stewart has a cameo in the finale of Irma Vep. You might think movie stars playing movie stars was too self-reflective, but who else are you going to get?
The Presence of Ghosts
The show's cross into the supernatural recalls Personal Shopper, Assayas' first horror movie where Kirstin Stewart plays a grieving psychic awaiting a message from her dead brother and is stalked by several unseen spirits that seem to be lurking on the edges of the frame. In Irma Vep, Assayas actually steps deeper into magical realism when Mira becomes a spirit, possibly possessed by the spirit of Irma Vep, and starts stepping through walls and lurking like a ghost to eavesdrop on people, then matter-of-factly sits down to chat with the spirit of her predecessor in the role and Vincent's ex-wife Jade Lee (Vivian Wu).
There are actually five Irma Veps in the show: Mira, the original actress Musidora shows up in clips from the original silent movies, Maggie Cheung shows up in clips from the 1996 movie, her fictional stand-in Jade Lee (Vivian Wu), Mira and Cynthia Khan (Fala Chen), who plays an accomplice of Irma Vep's who impersonates her in the show-within-the-show. When Mira tells Zoe that Paris, Rene and Irma Vep are not her world, she's an outsider, a spirit just passing through.
Mira also walks through the walls to meet a surprisingly unflappable Cynthia, who takes the supernatural occurrence before her in stride before they sit down for their chat. Irma Vep becomes the thread that ties these women into soulmates as if the role has also transformed them into spirits. She may be an amoral criminal and murderess in Les Vampires, but she also represents transgression, unrestrained artistic freedom, and transcendence.
In an era of TV series written by entire writer's rooms, there are a few writer-directors who can repeat and reiterate their own personal themes as Assayas does in Irma Vep. That used to be the province of movies that carried the mystique of the Auteur Theory, where directors were considered the "authors" of their movies, and recurring themes and visual styles are seen in all their works. François Truffaut did it all in the time, often repeating the same lines of dialogue from one movie to the next. David Lynch has done it throughout his entire career, culminating in Twin Peaks: The Return. Love him or hate him, Michael Bay is another one. Irma Vep is that rare instance of an entire TV series presenting the mindscape of its writer-director. It is unmistakably a work by Olivier Assayas.
Both the 1996 movie and 2022 TV series of Irma Vep are streaming on HBO.
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