Irma Vep Was First Film Femme Fatale, Inspiring Catwoman & Others

Irma Vep is the biggest geek explosion singularity on TV right now that nobody is watching. We don't know why. Is it because it's HBO, and nobody wants to pay for it? Is it because it's French/European and American viewers don't care? Or is it because HBO has done virtually nothing to make anyone aware of its existence, and only people who take their Criterion Collection Blu-Rays really seriously know about it right now? That's too bad because Irma Vep is the most fun you can have, like a European version of Comic=Con. That's too bad because not only is Irma Vep a lot of fun, but it also matters.

Irma Vep Was the First Femme Fatale in Movies, Led to Catwoman
Alicia Vikander in "Irma Vep", HBO, A24

Irma Vep is a reboot, remake, sequel, and update of creator Olivier Assayas' cult 1996 arthouse movie about movies. The original movie was about Hong Kong star Maggie Cheung, playing a fictional version of herself, going to Paris to play the main character in a remake of a classic French silent movie Les Vampires. The movie was a satire of the French film industry and the changing face of global cinema, amongst other layers. There's a reason Assayas chose the antiheroine of Les Vampires as the focal point of the story and doubles down on it in the TV show. Alicia Vikander is a Hollywood star frustrated with dumb blockbuster roles and goes to Paris to star in a remake of Irma Vep with, once again, a mentally unstable French director (the hilarious and melancholy Victor Macaigne). Once again, things don't go as expected and even get weird. Really weird.

Les Vampires (translation: "The Vampires") was a French silent movie serial that ran from 1915 to 1916, directed by Louis Feuillade, and shot semi-improvised on the streets of Paris during the height of the First World War. It was one of the first genre thrillers in movies, about an intrepid reporter trying to expose a secret society of criminals called "The Vampires". The Vampires terrorized French society with blackmail, murder, poisonings, and bombings. This was a time when the world was in chaos, and threats of bombings by anarchist groups on the streets of Paris were also an ongoing concern. Irma Vep, whose name is an acronym for "vampire," was the face of the Vampires, a thoroughly amoral villainess. She was played by Musidora, star of the stage and political activist who wore the first ever black skintight catsuit on film. Irma Vep was the first femme fatale of the movies and the mother of all genre heroines and villains, from Emma Peel in the Avengers to Catwoman, even the sheer chaos of Harley Quinn. She is the archetype from whom all these characters sprang for the next century. Les Vampires and its predecessor Fantomas were cinematic antecedents to the likes of Batman and James Bond and just about any major thriller franchise you love. So that's why Irma Vep matters.

Besides, where else are you going to go get Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander), Dream of the Endless (Tom Sturridge) and Shang-Chi's Mom (Fala Chen) meeting up in Paris? Irma Vep is the biggest geek meta hall of mirrors out there right now, and that's why you want to watch. Notably, the blu-ray of the original Les Vampires is now sold out on Amazon, possibly because of the show. We'll provide some guides and pointers to the series in the next few days. We'll talk about both the movie and the TV show, and the hall of mirrors between satire, genre metacommentary, and creator Assayas' very personal self-critique.

Both the 1996 movie and 2022 TV series of Irma Vep are streaming on HBO.

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Adi TantimedhAbout Adi Tantimedh

Adi Tantimedh is a filmmaker, screenwriter and novelist. He wrote radio plays for the BBC Radio, “JLA: Age of Wonder” for DC Comics, “Blackshirt” for Moonstone Books, and “La Muse” for Big Head Press. Most recently, he wrote “Her Nightly Embrace”, “Her Beautiful Monster” and “Her Fugitive Heart”, a trilogy of novels featuring a British-Indian private eye published by Atria Books, a division Simon & Schuster.
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