There are layers to Olivier Assayas’s masterful 1996 film Irma Vep. The iconic Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung plays herself as a hired gun—a box-office draw enlisted by an aging French director to save his new project—and the film-within-the-film is a remake of a turn-of-the-century Gaellic serial called Les Vampires, a twisty crime drama filled with assassinations, double-crosses and criminal masterminds.
The idea of remaking such a seminal work as Les Vampires is both cynical and credible—either a post-modern move or a complete rip-off. Assayas’s core joke was that French cinema was so out of ideas by the ’90s that it was reduced to hijacking and repackaging its own past; the film depicts an increasingly corporatized, premillennial movie marketplace lorded over by the twin towers of Hong Kong and Hollywood and increasingly infatuated with crossover figures like John Woo, whose balletically choreographed shootouts are cited within the film as the next big thing. In Assayas’s film, the traditional art-house model is on life support, but the diagnosis isn’t terminal. The implication is that all that’s needed to save the patient is a bit of new blood.
Sharply written and impeccably directed in the literate, whirling style that is Assayas’s calling card, Irma Vep contains multitudes. It’s a behind-the-scenes satire skewering the egos and power gaming of creative types; a tribute to silent-movie history and aesthetics; an existential comedy about the blurred boundaries of existence and performance; and above all, a showcase for its incomparable star. Captured at the peak of both her acting powers and global celebrity, the then-32-year-old Cheung gives a brilliant performance as a figure of earnest, jet-lagged glamor trying to inhabit multiple roles onscreen and off. No sooner has she arrived in Paris to the chaos and backbiting of independent film production than she’s wondering if she shouldn’t maybe catch the next plane out of town.
Assayas is a heady director in love with intellectual gambits and relentless crosstalk: His preferred character type is the kind of guy who loves the sound of his own voice. But he’s also capable of brutal B-movie shocks, as in the superlative video-game nightmare Demonlover and the grimy, violent Boarding Gate—thrillers made under the signs of David Cronenberg and Quentin Tarantino. Irma Vep found him virtuosically crossing streams, blending jumpy, handheld realism with elegant genre-movie stylization and inviting viewers to exult in the confusion. In the film’s most memorable scene, Cheung, unable to rest the night before a shoot and doped up on sleeping pills, pilfers a skintight black cat suit from the wardrobe department and stealthily steals a necklace from a fellow hotel dweller. The scene exists somewhere between hallucination and self-hypnosis, as if the movie star charged with playing an agile, roof-crawling master criminal was suddenly in thrall to her alter ego. It’s Method acting as madness, or maybe a variation of the old metaphor that movies are like dreams. Here, Maggie is Irma Vep; life imitates art, because art is so much more fun.
Twenty-six years later, Assayas has remade—or, more accurately, reimagined—Irma Vep as an eight-part miniseries for HBO. As in the original film, the plot revolves around an acclaimed yet struggling French filmmaker named René Vidal who wants to remake the epically long Les Vampires despite the objections of his collaborators, who fear the project won’t be commercially viable. Things have been updated: In 2022, mounting an elaborate serialized narrative is less a throwback to the ancient history of cinema than an attempt to surf the zeitgeist. Assayas is keenly aware that these days, streaming, episodic content has at once displaced and fused with traditional feature filmmaking. Making his own entry into the nebulous, omnipresent genre known as Peak TV, Assayas deconstructs the terrain—and its implications—with light-fingered finesse.
The basic tension in the material remains the same as it was in Irma Vep: a story of art versus commerce suggesting that hardcore cinephiles are fighting a losing battle. But it’s not as if Assayas is a snob. He’s an omnivorous movie lover. When he worked as a critic in France, he praised the original Christopher Reeve Superman and the collected works of Sylvester Stallone. What was so exhilarating about the movie version of Irma Vep was how it allowed for the possibility that filmmakers like Woo—and stars like Cheung—could be bridges between expressive cinematic artistry and the demands of the mass audience. The difference now is that comic-book movie fans have been radicalized online to close ranks against anything that emanates from beyond their chosen cinematic universes, and Irma Vep takes stock of this stratification.
In 2013’s excellent Clouds of Sils Maria, Assayas examined the pop-cultural colonization of superhero movies in a scene where Juliette Binoche and Kristen Stewart—the former playing a famous stage actress, the latter her personal assistant—take in a faux-Marvel movie in a Parisian theater. It’s a wry, priceless interlude, with Binoche munching popcorn behind 3-D glasses while, onscreen, Chloë Grace Moretz emotes in X-Men drag amidst listless CGI. Afterwards, over drinks and a suddenly palpable generation gap, the two women argue whether the evening’s entertainment was art or trash. Stewart’s character is more sympathetic to the charms of teen-oriented franchise fare, as if the actress were somehow sticking up for her Twilight experience; Assayas diplomatically grants her her point of view.
The debate continues in Irma Vep, where, in lieu of Maggie Cheung playing herself, the heroine is Mira (Alicia Vikander), the lithe, high-maintenance, and extremely bankable star of a comic-book franchise called Doomsday. In the first episode, we learn that Doomsday is not only a hit, but a critical cause celebre; its success means that Mira is taking calls to star in a gender-swapped adaptation of Silver Surfer.
The apocalyptic subtext of the title Doomsday is not subtle, but it is funny. Mira’s barely sheathed ambivalence for her own blockbuster meal ticket gives her a harsher outlook than Cheung’s amiable bafflement, and the show takes its cues from her worldview. Mira’s unapologetic self-absorption compensates for the fact that, iconographically speaking, Vikander is no Maggie Cheung—not nearly as immediately likable or sympathetic. But Assayas rolls with this disparity. In the movie Irma Vep, Cheung is the protagonist, but she’s also a sort of canvas onto which the characters around her project their insecurities, desires and fantasies. Watching the film, there’s no question that the camera (and the director behind it) are in love with her (and the pair would marry a couple of years after production). Now, the fish-out-of-water farce of a Chinese superstar trying to speak French dialogue has been replaced by a more globalized vision in which every aspect of film production has been flattened out in the name of transnational viability, and as played by Vikander, Mira is an avatar of adaptability. She never seems out of place in the same way as Cheung, but she’s still bewildered by the shoot and its interpersonal complications, and how they charge her own conflicted professional and romantic impulses.
The show’s other protagonist is Mira’s director, the aforementioned René Vidal, played in a fugue of sputtering neurosis by Vincent Macaigne. Macaigne is like a cartoon caricature of French pretentiousness; even when he speaks English, you expect to see subtitles. This character is clearly distinct from the Vidal who was played by the French New Wave axiom Jean-Pierre Léaud in the original—a symbolic piece of casting that emphasized the theme of a medium reckoning with its own illustrious history. But there are also hints that somehow, the two men are one and the same; at one point, a reference is made to a previous attempt to remake Les Vampires. Is Macaigne’s René somehow Léaud’s reincarnation, or a French Benjamin Button aging backwards into the 21st century? The puzzlement of this plotline is a conscious byproduct of Assayas’s self-awareness: the way he wants his audience to think through the material, as well as his reasons for resurrecting it in the first place.
For the first two episodes, Irma Vep behaves more or less like the movie version. We see scenes being blocked and rehearsed; suits fret over financing; the costume department tries to create a perfect catsuit. What’s new, and very enjoyable, is how the longform format lets Assayas indulge in his digressive side. In the movie, we only saw small glimpses of the Vampires remake; here, we get multiple, elaborate scenes of re-creation, including a sequence where the guests at a fancy ball are overwhelmed by poison. These interludes are superbly well-executed while calling attention to the futility of creating an analogue epic in a digital world. René’s Vampires follows the script of the original but makes no real effort to hide its present-tense setting; Assayas plays the ensuing cognitive dissonance for comedy, as well as a kind of pathos.
The sprawl of Irma Vep also leaves plenty of time to look at Mira’s love life, which, as lasciviously imagined by Assayas, is in a state of disarray owing to her breakup with her former personal assistant Laurie (Adria Arjona), who’s married to the director of Doomsday. The power dynamics of the star-assistant relationship were sharply examined in Clouds of Sils Maria, but the emphasis here is on a teasing, knowing, same-sex eroticism. Emancipated from the supplicancy of her former job and out to teach her entitled ex-lover a lesson, Laurie plays alpha power games with Mira that systematically demolish the latter’s star status (and beg the question of whether the front-running, above-the-title movie star has a submissive fetish). There’s also relationship drama between Vampires cast members whose own breakup requires discussion of an “intimacy coordinator” to block any potential sex scenes, and a late revelation about René’s own relationships that’s too much of a spoiler to even hint at here—a twist that provides this Irma Vep with its most audacious and jaw-dropping connection to its predecessor.
The pleasures of a show like Irma Vep lie in its relentless cleverness and post-modern sophistication—the way it flaunts its own intelligence and frame of reference. The flipside of these virtues is a certain insularity. (It’s less a proverbial water cooler show than a wine-tasting show.) At the same time, such distinctions—and the outmoded, binary thinking that they expose—are at the heart of Assayas’s project. It’s always worth asking whether art is something that somebody tries to make for an audience, or themselves, or for history. René is pretentious, but he’s also thoughtful, and his confusion, like his passion, is contagious.
“It is finished,” says an obnoxious journalist in the movie version of Irma Vep, referring snidely to the idea of art cinema. He doesn’t sound disappointed. And while Assayas’s series may take place in the shadow of Doomsday, it also repudiates the idea of the end of movies as we know them. Instead, it exults in the possibilities of adaptation and evolution. Nothing’s over. The show must always go on.
Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.