- Creator: Olivier Assayas
- Starring: Alicia Vikander, Vincent Macaigne, Adria Arjona, Devon Ross, Lars Eidinger, Vincent Lacoste, Jeanne Balibar
- Four of eight episodes watched for review.
Before diving into Olivier Assayas’s newest project, I had multiple questions about what an Irma Vep television show would be (I had avoided watching any trailers). Would it be a simple retread of Assayas’s acclaimed 1996 film? Would it be a follow-up to the events of the film? How many of the film’s themes would make their way over to the small screen? Would Assayas even acknowledge its existence in the text? How much more does Assayas have to say about movie making that couldn’t have been done in, say, another film? Will the show be accessible for audiences that aren’t familiar with the film? Naturally, some questions are answered simply, and some are more complex.
The plot, simple as it appears to be, revolves around a film crew and its attempt to remake “Les Vampires”, a French silent film from 1916. Both projects share a director, René Vidal (Vincent Macaigne here), whose professional hopes and dreams – as well as his sanity – appear tied to its success. The show’s star is obviously Alicia Vikander, who plays actress Mira and Irma Vep in the fictional show, and also serves as an executive producer here, but Macaigne is the secret ingredient to Irma Vep. He plays René as someone barely hanging on to reality, as his actors and crew question each of his decisions and sometimes openly rebel against him. Still, Macaigne remains empathetic and relatable, and he crucially uses his visible chemistry with Vikander throughout the series.
Vikander, meanwhile, is given a layered, complex character to play, and she runs away with it at every opportunity. Mira, much like Maggie Cheung in the original film, is a fictionalized version of Vikander’s real-life persona, introduced after wrapping a superhero blockbuster and jumping into the new production. Mira’s personal life is actually given a great deal of screen time, which is perhaps the key difference between the show and the film. It’s established early on that Mira is still hung up on Laurie (Adria Arjona), her former assistant and ex-lover, who married the director of her most recent film. Vikander and Arjona’s chemistry in their brief scenes together goes a long way to sell the push-pull of their relationship. Mira’s desperation and loneliness is a highlight of the show, and the ways that Assayas constantly evolves her struggle is fascinatingly nuanced.
Though I would recommend the 1996 film to anyone, I don’t believe it’s entirely necessary to be familiar with it before watching the series. The show follows the film’s template fairly faithfully, to its benefit and detriment. Some developments play out fairly similarly to the film, like the costume designer Zoe (Jeanne Balibar) crushing on Mira. And both projects involve Alex Descas as Gregory, the exasperated production manager who plays the middle-man between the financiers and the creative team. Irma Vep is benefitted by its expanded runtime, which it uses to fully flesh out its characters. Screen time is also dedicated to Vincent Lacoste’s Edmond, the male protagonist of the fictional show, a struggling actor who projects his own personal drama onto the production and clashes most frequently with René. And Lars Eidinger arrives to provide a fun bit of chaos as a crack-addicted bad-boy actor.
The film found itself as a type of love letter to filmmaking, and a commentary on the current state of French cinema, which the show also does in thoughtful and interesting ways. The film and television landscape has changed drastically in the 26 years since Assayas made his big international splash, and the French auteur is as much an authority as anyone to lend his voice. A few scenes consist of debates around art versus commerce (a favorite subject of Assayas’) and whether entertainment has always been a mass-produced piece of consumption, or whether it was back when Les Vampires was made over 100 years ago.
There are subtle jabs at the Hollywood machine here and there, but they never override the heart of the matter, which is that filmmaking is a labor of love, but a labor nonetheless. Though, given a particular development in the third and fourth episodes, it becomes evident that perhaps the series is a kind of meta therapy tool for Assayas and his off-screen relationship that developed because of the 1996 film. Aesthetically speaking, I personally prefer the film’s guerilla-style grittiness, which helps to sell its fly-on-the-wall sensibilities, though the show is certainly pretty to look at.
There is no other show on television right now like Irma Vep, and this is one of its greatest strengths. Sure, plenty of shows and sitcoms have been about the behind-the-scenes life of entertainment, but few have ever felt as realistically depicted. Characters are unpredictable from one moment to the next, yet totally predictable in that they often resort to their basest instincts. Above all else, they’re real people that feel like more than mouthpieces for commentary on the movie or TV industry.
It could be all too easy for Assayas to turn the show into a kind of mockumentary look at the weirdos that make movies, but he’s thankfully more interested in grounded, human drama. Indeed, the show is like a Russian nesting doll of entertainment, a fictionalized production of a remake of a production which references a film that its real-life creator made himself (does your head hurt yet?). I don’t know if mainstream audiences will embrace the show, or if it will resonate more with fans of the film, but regardless, it provides plenty of enticing drama and humor to make it a worthwhile experiment.
Irma Vep will premiere episodes on HBO weekly beginning June 6 at 9pm ET.