You don’t have to have seen Louis Feuillade’s groundbreaking silent series the vampires to watch Olivier Assayas’ upcoming HBO series Irma Vepoabout a remake by a French director the vampires† You probably don’t need to have seen Olivier Assayas’ 1996 film Irma Vepoalso about a remake by a French director the vampires†
Or maybe? Assaya’s new Irma Vepowhere the director’s character now adapts the vampires as a TV series that previously made it as an art feature is a satire on the entertainment industry, but it’s really an internal conversation about evolutions in modern storytelling. And it’s probably one thing if you’re just looking at star Alicia Vikander—never relaxed or gracefully sneaky—and quite another if you’re so eager to talk about French cinema and the work of Olivier Assayas as Olivier Assayas is so obvious.
It comes down to
Vikander is a treat in a clever and (exhaustive) meta-series.
This one Irma Vepo is loosely and intellectually tortuous, broad and funny one minute and wallowing in sad self-righteousness the next. You could compare it to HBO’s current season barryonly with more pretensions, which is certainly not a bad thing – although I’m not sure if Assayas has a decisive point he wants to make after premiering the three episodes (out of eight in total) at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, or if he’s just busy again with an art form in perpetual transition.
Vikander plays Mira, a Hollywood star completing a promotional tour for her new superhero movie. Judgement day† After a few less successful films, Judgement day is a hit and she rides on the momentum to the vampireswhile her agent (Carrie Brownstein’s Zelda) would rather she signed up for an upcoming reboot of The Silver Surfer† But Mira and her new Gilles Deleuze reading assistant Regina (Devon Ross) are intrigued by series writer-director Rene Vidal (Vincent Macaigne).
Mira also searches for a way out of her newly married ex-girlfriend and ex-assistant Laurie (Adria Arjona).
In 1996 from Assayas Irma VepoRene (Jean-Pierre Léaud) was a New Wave burnout who was drawn to recreating the crime thriller, in part because of the fetishism of working with actress Maggie Cheung (glorious as a version of herself) in the signature catsuit of the main character. Here he is haunted by layers of the past, both the towering legacy of the original and his own remake. Rene’s series is so strictly devoted to Feuillade’s original that none of the actors, with their modern psychology, can understand the motivations of their characters, which amusingly frustrates the director.
If this sounds too meta to you, there’s no harm in just sticking to the silly farce of something like Netflix Call my agent! But if you follow the layers and maybe even think that the dynamics of the erotic obsession between a star and her agent is a lot like Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria, then this is for you. And if you’re amused by the idea of a director arguing with a doctor about whether his eight-part limited series is television or one full-length movie? You are the target demographic here. Whatever hesitations I may have, I am sure.
Assayas has his characters discuss things like zombie movie subtext, the newfound importance of intimacy coordinators, the rise of online media, Harvey Weinstein, and more hot topics in the industry than I could list here. Plus, there’s at least one good Emily in Paris joke. There’s no real sense of depth yet, but that could still emerge.
There’s a lot of talk, but Assayas is never without complementary style, in a series that enhances the central behind-the-scenes films in and around a grounded, minimally romanticized Paris with images from the 1916 series and highly stylized rushes from the series that Rene makes.
Macaigne is one of the many regulars of the Assayas ensemble who perform here – including Jeanne Balibar as the show’s client Zoe and Nora Hamzawi as first assistant director Carla – and he gives the performance that best reflects the themes of the show, namely comic and tragic artistic expression. He is confused and disoriented in his present and becomes increasingly lost in his past, factors that apparently make him very difficult to insure. Also contributing humor is Vincent Lacoste and especially Lars Eidinger, another favorite of Assayas, as actors whose insecurities and addictions could cripple the series.
Everything is built around Vikander, in a role that makes expert use of the star’s ballet-trained physicality. There’s a palpable eroticism in her scenes with Arjona in the premiere and later episodes hinting at the in-character obsession that was so pivotal to the 1996 film, but mostly the performance is just wonderfully light and open – in no way the you would expect a parody of the movie star on a foreign set. But again, the way the film gained wealth from Cheung as an outsider on the brink of exhaustion and alienation feels so far missed here.
Television has not been unkind to Assayas. It helped launch his career and earned him an Emmy nomination for the often notable miniseries Carlos† Maybe that’s why this new one Irma Vepo does not yet feel that it is willing to commit to mocking or lionizing television. I’m curious to see more, and even more interested in having Assayas return to variations on this story every few years. If audiences watch this HBO series, maybe in 2030 he’ll do something about a French director’s remake the vampires as a series of Quibis.