July 2022


‘Irma Vep’

By Craig Mathieson
Still from ‘Irma Vep’
Olivier Assayas revisits his 1996 film in a delicious palindromic limited series, in which a frazzled director remakes his ‘Irma Vep’ film into a TV series

Beginnings and endings blur in Olivier Assayas’s limited series, a treatise on a century of cinematic expression that’s made – in the first of many playful twists – for television. The space between an artist and their work disappears in this delicious HBO show (locally on Binge), which is suffused with meta-commentary and a palindromic logic. Case in point: the subject of Irma Vep, a show shot in Paris with an international cast and crew, is an international cast and crew in Paris shooting a show titled Irma Vep. It is helmed by the fictional director René Vidal (Vincent Macaigne) who, just like Assayas, is retooling the film of Irma Vep that he made in 1996. It could easily be pretentious, but these eight episodes are a pleasure: lithe, knowing and drily hilarious.

New viewers need not know the backstory. Via erudite technique – Assayas, like René, is making a very long film – the storytelling elegantly unfolds. Echoing François Truffaut’s Day for Night, this is a production procedural where the stars are pocket universes, the department heads fight for their craft and pettiness flourishes. One of the many running gags is that few of the cast have read the entire script, so the increasingly frazzled René has to explain each scene and their motivation to them in advance. Assayas is clearly bemused by and in awe of a production process where a multitude of flawed people are collectively trying to make something wondrous.

Every Irma Vep draws inspiration from Les Vampires, a silent French film serial that debuted in 1915. It depicted a world of nefarious criminal gangs, gentleman investigators and larcenous schemes, complete with the iconic Irma Vep (Musidora), a master thief who prowls the rooftops of Paris in a black catsuit. It’s a role that, in this latest iteration, attracts Mira Harberg (Alicia Vikander), an American movie star tired of superhero blockbusters. With her personal assistant, Regina (Devon Ross), Mira transits between hotel and set, grasping for artistic and personal satisfaction. Assayas shoots from inside celebrity’s cloistered world, with a matter-of-fact depiction of fame’s grip and the crew serving as casual confidants.

With this much autofiction – René previously married and divorced the Hong Kong star who played Irma Vep in his 1996 film, as Assayas did with Maggie Cheung in real life – you could make a case for verisimilitude. But Assayas is having too much fun to be purely authentic. René is on the verge of a breakdown, his leading man is a petulant whiner, while the costume designer, Zoe (Jeanne Balibar), flirts with Mira through her fittings. The capper is the German actor Gottfried (Lars Eidinger), a malignant chaos agent who arrives on set requesting drugs to satisfy his addiction, and then proceeds to insult everyone and give wild media interviews.

The rise of industrialised content is lamented by the participants, but Assayas also reveals a rapturous love for a century’s worth of Irma Veps. He will cut from Louis Feuillade’s flickering black-and-white footage to René’s gorgeously lit re-creation, or show the crew at work before cutting to what they’re capturing. The satirical setbacks become background noise. Mira experiences a similar transformation, losing her own bearings the more she portrays Irma so that quotidian moments segue into a transfixing performance. “It’s more of a prestige product,” the show’s corporate financier dismissively tells René, but in reality this Irma Vep has much to offer.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.


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