Olivier Assayas’s series Irma Vep – a remake of a movie about a remake – is a deliciously witty take on contemporary screen culture. By Anthony Carew.

Irma Vep

Alicia Vikander in Olivier Assayas’s television series Irma Vep.
Alicia Vikander in Olivier Assayas’s television series Irma Vep.
Credit: HBO / Binge

In the podcast The Rewatchables, one question posed of every old movie discussed is: “Would this work as a 10-episode series?” If we’re to judge by upcoming streaming-service release sheets, the answer is always “yes”.

Television series scheduled soon include, among many others, remakes of A League of Their Own, American Gigolo, Dead Ringers, Fatal Attraction, Field of Dreams, Flashdance, Interview with the Vampire, The Italian Job, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, Reality Bites and True Lies – a slate of old video-store titles that shows intellectual property recycling isn’t just a big-screen phenomenon.

Into this realm of endless revivals, Irma Vep arrives as an artful, insightful riff on the very idea of the remake. Olivier Assayas’s brilliant 1996 feature was an impish meta-movie about a failed attempt to remake the French silent-era serial Les Vampires. Now Assayas is helming an updated take on his own idea, an eight-episode A24/HBO series in which, in the production being chronicled by the narrative, Les Vampires is being remade as a television series.

To amplify the meta-commentary, the director of this fictional remake, René Vidal (Vincent Macaigne), made a movie titled Irma Vep when he was young in the ’90s. Now returning to his breakout hit in advancing middle age, he’s clearly a mirror for Assayas. Especially given Vidal’s fictional Irma Vep starred his ex-wife, Hong Kong starlet Jade Lee (Vivian Wu), an obvious stand-in for Assayas’s real-life star and former spouse, Maggie Cheung, who played herself in the 1996 movie.

Moving between 1916, 1996 and 2022 – taking in the original movie, a dramatic restaging of its wartime making, Assayas’s own original film, this new fictional production and its finished form – Irma Vep is full of screens within screens, frames within frames, echoes of echoes. Digging up the ghosts of their past, directors both in front of and behind the camera return to a project that was already an examination of cinema and the self.

In Assayas’s original movie, the fictional director shared the same character name, but that version of René Vidal (played by French screen legend Jean-Pierre Léaud) was depicted as an ageing nouvelle vague auteur, a celebrated “genius” in uninspired late-career decline. This allowed Assayas to poke fun at French film: its history, its self-importance, its place in the growing global marketplace. It was a critique of a national cinema out of new ideas, satisfied with bathing in the golden glow of Palmes d’Or past.

As with Léaud in the 1996 movie, Macaigne is playing a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown. He’s struggling to live up to the vastness of the production, his reverence for Les Vampires, his own previous movie. He calls his original film “fresh and pure”, the new series “stained and tainted”.

In his series, Assayas widens the lens, examining not just French film but the contemporary screen culture moment. This expands a theme seen in his 2014 film Clouds of Sils Maria, where Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart directly discussed the merits of popcorn movies, with the whole haunted by the spectre of the superheroisation of cinema.

Here, as Hollywood star Mira Harberg (Alicia Vikander) arrives in France to make an Irma Vep series, she’s doing it for the artistic cred, squeezing the gig between lucrative franchise appointments brokered by her ambitious agent, Zelda (Carrie Brownstein). Around Mira – with her agent, ex-husband, ex-lover and manifold on-set figures – conversations constantly turn to the state of cinematic affairs.

A century before, Les Vampires was itself a 10-part series, but – as with a novel, originally released in serialised form – it came to be regarded as a single seven-hour film. Vidal is adamant that he’s doing the same: “I’m not making a series,” he pronounces, “I’m making a film.” But, at a party where cast and crew talk shop, oddball costumer Zoe (Jeanne Balibar) disputes the notion that any series can be cinema at length. “They’re not long movies,” she says, “they’re content – industrial entertainment ruled by algorithms.”

When power-producer Gautier (Pascal Greggory) visits the set, he embodies the sentiment. His concerns are achieving “bingeworthy” status, cracking the Chinese market and making Mira the face of a new prestige perfume line – and not necessarily in that order.

While this Irma Vep is conversant with the familiar archetypes of the meta-movie – all-business producers, egotistical directors, jealous co-stars, manic man-child actors – it’s never as simple as satire. Assayas takes the landscape of a large-scale production and mines it for humanity, humour and drama. As he examines the production’s relationships, power games and moments of minor rebellion, it almost borders on workplace comedy, an arch look at people on the job.

As a character puts it in the 1996 film: “Cinema is not magic; it’s a technique and a science.” The counterpoint comes in the series when Mira’s assistant, Regina (Devon Ross), summons avant-gardist, occultist filmmaker Kenneth Anger’s belief in cinema as magic ritual. Assayas is clearly a believer in this, the mythos and alchemy of the moving image.

The series recurringly screens the original Les Vampires, permitting us to watch the ghostly century-old celluloid and marvel at how the images travel through time, reaching towards immortality. We often shift from the original to the remake within this remake, usually eventually pulling back to reveal the labour of the production. A favourite device is to either impose or remove the stylised “veil” of movieness – colour grading, film grain, widescreen aspect ratio, Thurston Moore’s score – to transport us away from or back to the on-the-job reality.

As we go from behind the curtain to in front, backstage to onstage, Assayas mines meaning from all the various layers. Mira accuses Vidal of “being self-indulgent” when he lets the production get tangled up in his neuroses. This Irma Vep is, too, a grand undertaking that seems to be ultimately about its maker.

Assayas isn’t a particularly precious director, though – he’s happy to mock not just the notion of the “visionary genius” but himself. As he revisits memorable moments from the film that made his career – Mira, like Maggie before her, dons Irma Vep’s vamping catsuit when off set, spending nights climbing rooftops and sneaking into hotel rooms like some method-acting phantom – there’s no hint of self-congratulation.

Instead, he’s more into self-critique. And that’s just one element amid an abundance of metacommentary on filmmaking, internationalist production, the relationship between art and commerce, and the dual narratives of any motion-picture entertainment: the story being told, and the story of its making.

This hall of mirrors summons cinema’s carnival-sideshow salad days. And, for all its meta-movie layers, its digital trickery and montaged flow, Irma Vep is still a work of illusion: lights on a screen conjuring past and present, old and new, fact and fiction, real and unreal. It may ultimately amount to so much data streaming through multinational content machinery, but, in the right hands, cinema is still magic.

Irma Vep is now streaming on HBO and Binge.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 16, 2022 as "Summoning the undead".

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Anthony Carew is a Melbourne-based critic.

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