The Ghosts of “Irma Vep”

Shadow Play

Oliver Assayas remakes Irma Vep.

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The anxiety around the state of cinema that Olivier Assayas captured in his 1996 international breakthrough, Irma Vep, has proved remarkably enduring. The French auteur uses the setting, a troubled production of a remake of Louis Feuillade’s 1915 Les Vampires, to explore the ways film is adapting to an epoch of encroaching globalization and ever-changing tastes. The movie’s aging, unstable director, René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud, the most prominent actor of the French New Wave), strives to update a classic for a self-aware era with Maggie Cheung (playing a version of herself), an international star best known for her action films, in the role of Irma Vep—arguably the ur–femme fatale, originally brought to life by the silent film star Musidora. On this postmodern canvas, Assayas places a New Wave icon in direct conversation with French cinema’s past and its globalized present.

In Irma Vep, this history is diffused across multiple relationships, and a general unease around contemporary art-making is sublimated into sexual intrigue and professional backbiting. The production is naturally rife with chaos and competing interests. No one has much faith in René, whom they view as washed-up; meanwhile, the crew frequently grumble about the emptiness of remakes and the need for more personal, original films. Yet Cheung remains an entrancing locus: The jaded cast and crew politely exoticize her; the costumer Zoé (Nathalie Richard), the audience surrogate, lusts after her. René wants to make the film only because of his obvious attraction to his lead actress, which mirrors the real-life desire of Assayas, who courted Cheung during the filming and married her shortly after the movie’s release. (They divorced three years later.)

Irma Vep differentiates itself from its film-about-filmmaking forebears like François Truffaut’s Day for Night and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore through its focus on cinema’s future as a practice and an institution. It raises questions about the viability of art house cinema when tastes and capital skew permanently toward commerciality. While Assayas doesn’t exactly pose solutions, he presents a potentially radical vision in the form of René’s edit of his Les Vampires remake’s dailies: a montage of discarded black-and-white footage of Cheung, defaced by abstract scratches and abrasive noise, broadly inspired by Isidore Isou’s avant-garde film Venom and Eternity, which antagonized audiences at the 1951 Cannes Film Festival. Taking his cues from the Lettrist movement by way of punk rock, Assayas ends the film with these caustic images in order to suggest a new language for cinema, one free of consumerist concerns, empty spectacle, and narrative demands.

Now, more than 25 years later, Assayas has adapted Irma Vep as an HBO miniseries to comment on a very different cinematic landscape. The bare-bones plot and characters have only a few alterations. René Vidal (Vincent Macaigne) is now a much younger but similarly unstable version of the director in the film. With the original Les Vampires remake now in his past, he is adapting it into a miniseries. Meanwhile, Maggie Cheung is now Mira Harberg (Alicia Vikander), an actress fresh off a blockbuster superhero film who has agreed to star in the series as Irma Vep. But even if many of the elements are the same, the larger commentary about the film industry has changed. The professionals running the production are hyperaware of how their Les Vampires, despite its cinematic roots and niche appeal, is an intractable part of a content mill built on hollow IP and streaming platforms. As much as René insists that he’s making a long film split into eight parts, everyone in his employ knows they’re making TV and frequently debate the value of a medium that’s a slave to market forces. Later, it is revealed that the financier who signed off on René’s project did so only to entice Mira into being the face of a new perfume line. In the never-ending battle between art and commerce, the new Irma Vep suggests that art has never taken more of a beating.

Assayas doesn’t spotlight the cynicism behind reboot culture and prestige TV merely in order to preempt criticism for having turned his celebrated art film into a miniseries for HBO. His engagement with the contemporary pitfalls of the industry is as sincere an inquiry as one can expect from an avowed cinephile who once wrote for the storied French New Wave journal Cahiers du Cinéma. Although Assayas interrogates the landscape with a playful sense of contempt, he doesn’t indulge in bitterness: Through his characters, he can express appreciation for big-budget superhero films and serialized television even as he takes potshots. He valorizes an older, rebellious style of filmmaking and acting while rolling his eyes at their pretensions. Assayas’s earnest concern for cinema’s condition stems from a transparent anxiety over whether there’s any room left for an aging auteur—now in his late 60s—who must continuously adapt to a business in a state of serious flux.

This unease might be why Assayas filters so much of his autobiography into the new Irma Vep. Unlike in the film, the version of René in the series is very much a stand-in for the director; in the world of the show, René, a neurotic artist, struggles to create a miniseries version of an independent film he made with his ex-wife, an Asian actress. While the movie version of Irma Vep was primarily in conversation with the film industry, the TV series engages not only with today’s cinema and Les Vampires but also with the original Irma Vep. Assayas both restages scenes from the film and cuts scenes from it into the series, drawing parallels between Cheung and Vikander-as-Mira. He also re-creates scenes from the original Les Vampires and uses the cast to re-create the filming of the original Les Vampires. Assayas successfully collapses fiction and reality, cinema’s past and present, into a porous temporal space where more than a century of film epochs are in dialogue with each other. Lines are blurred until history becomes a living, breathing continuum.

The new Irma Vep might be “content—industrial entertainment ruled by algorithms,” to quote the series’ costumer Zoé (Jeanne Balibar), but if it is, it works remarkably well as such. It’s a stellar, comedic depiction of life on a film set—the logistical headaches, the negotiation of egos, the financial constraints, and, yes, the intermittent joys—as well as the supplementary nuisances of celebrity (pushy agents, tabloid scandals, the preoccupation with optics). Assayas heightens the free-floating sexual mood from the first film into an intoxicating atmosphere, with Mira seducing and flirting with everyone from Zoé to her own former assistant turned nemesis, Laurie (Adria Arjona), to her new assistant, an aspiring filmmaker named Regina (Devon Ross). Meanwhile, Vikander has rarely exhibited a more vivacious on-screen personality than she does as Mira, and Macaigne excels as a splenetic, volatile mess with a sensitive child’s insecurity.

Assayas peppers the series with plenty of his patented stylistic preoccupations: the near constant self-reflexivity, the mash-up of genre tropes, a superb mixtape-like soundtrack, and the expertly blocked party scenes. But he also bends the medium to his own formal predilections. For one thing, it’s weirdly thrilling to watch multiple lengthy excerpts of the original Les Vampires, albeit slightly edited, in an HBO series, but there’s also relatively little interest in traditional, linear story arcs or neat resolutions. Characters come and go depending on their utility; disputes between them are picked up or discarded depending on the needs of any given scene or episode. Assayas superimposes a seemingly conventional chronological structure over the series—it chronicles an eight-episode production to its completion—but it’s never so rigid that the scenes or key moments feel predictable or preordained. The result is a freewheeling project that operates as a subtle response to the workaday nature of most serialized television. “We are living in boring, dark, dull times. Where is the sense of adventure?” says Gottfried (Lars Eidinger), a crack-addicted, vape-smoking German actor who at one point brings the production to a halt when he falls into a coma after an autoerotic asphyxiation accident.

But the primary reason that the new Irma Vep is a major work in Assayas’s oeuvre—a rumination of sorts on his nearly four-decade-long career—is that he grounds his conception of cinema in spiritualism and fantasy. At a time when so many writer-directors grandstand about the power of storytelling and communal spectacle, Assayas all but rejects that notion in favor of carving out a mystical dimension in his imagery. He literalizes this in the series by making Irma Vep a supernatural figure. Whenever Mira dons the velvet catsuit on-screen, she’s playing the role of the famous villainess, an icon to be feared and adored. But whenever she wears the suit off-screen, she has the power to move through Paris without being seen, shuffling between spaces like a shadow. The first time Mira literally walks through a wall is the moment Irma Vep proudly sheds the shackles of realism and becomes something more.

Movies are a portal to some spiritual world… some sort of spiritual world we don’t have access to anymore,” Mira says sincerely to her costar Cynthia Keng (Fala Chen). Even if this statement might be read as high-flown, itis an overarching theme that Assayas takes very seriously, even when his characters voice opposing views. (“Are movies art?” Cynthia responds. “I find them mostly futile.”) His commitment to honoring cinematic history and its impressionistic beginnings is clear: He prominently weaves flashbacks to the making of Les Vampires—based on passages from Musidora’s memoir—into the second half of the series not just to connect the remake with the original but also to depict a ramshackle era of cinema when this more magical sensibility was paramount. Feuillade (played by Macaigne in the flashbacks) frequently improvises on set, often putting his cast and crew in mortal danger (at one point, a controlled explosion almost deafens the cast; in another, Musidora lies on train tracks as a real train roars above her). Assayas doesn’t glorify these methods but merely illustrates the lengths to which Feuillade went to transport audiences away from their material circumstance.

For Assayas, the process of pulling an audience away from mundane reality is at the center of his new Irma Vep. He throws everything at the wall, interrogating his relationship his own art and career through methods that might seem inexplicable and ghostly. In the series, he includes a stand-in for Cheung named Jade Lee (Vivian Wu), who appears as a spectral vision haunting René and the production. Every scene featuring Jade evokes a profound vulnerability, not just because many of her conversations with René and Mira feel ripped from either real life or some intimate part of Assayas’s imagination, but also because they’re a heartfelt tribute to a former collaborator whose palpable absence is hard to miss. Despite Cheung’s lack of involvement, Assayas doesn’t speak for her but rather channels her spirit. There isn’t an ounce of defensiveness to these scenes, even when he catechizes remaking the series without her participation. When Assayas finally broaches the topic of cultural appropriation (is it appropriate for a white actress to take on a role originated by a Chinese actress?), he offers, via Jade, a poignant definition of identity—one that embraces mutability and irreducibility—that eases whatever anxieties a viewer, or the director, might hold in an instant.

“Whenever cinema is in chaos, you can do a new Irma Vep, and I felt pretty much that cinema was in the moment of chaos,” Assayas told Filmmaker magazine earlier this summer. But while the series never denies the shaky state of the industry, Assayas expresses something resembling optimism over its future and the manifold forms it will inevitably take. This never once reads as a naive coping mechanism, but rather as a religious belief in imagery and the spirits that haunt its margins.

In his new Irma Vep, Assayas presents an exhilarating take on the experimental dailies that ended Irma Vep the film: René’s personal edit is a rapid-fire montage of various scenes from the series, complete with the abstract scratches as an homage to the original film, scored to Sonic Youth’s “Mildred Pierce.” He presents this montage not as a manifesto-like statement but as a demonstration of cinema’s persistent capabilities and potential to astonish. The new Irma Vep concludes with a warm private conversation between René and his wife over the phone while Mira-as-Irma stalks the room like a specter in the background. It’s a vision of art living beyond the confines of its creation, seeping into the real world like a phantom subtly influencing its environment until life and art become one.

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