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Irma Vep review: A playful, uneven HBO remake

There’s no withering critique you could lob at Irma Vep that the new HBO miniseries hasn’t already lobbed at itself. Early into the third episode of this relentlessly meta and self-devouring showbiz drama, a group of actors lounge around a backyard table at a Parisian house party, talking about the state of the entertainment industry and the value of the kind of project they’re appearing in — which is to say, the miniseries we’re watching and the one they’re making within the miniseries we’re watching. It’s all just content for streaming services, one of them insists. Another counters that cinema has always been content, going back to its humble origins. Is this a version of some argument writer-director Olivier Assayas had with himself while deciding whether to expand his big-screen Irma Vep into a small-screen event?

Only in an era of bottomless viewing options, all vying for the same subscriber base, could we ever expect a remake of a shuffling 1996 French art-house movie about a Hong Kong actress flying to Paris to make a French art-house movie. It’s not the most obvious candidate for the nostalgic revival treatment previously bestowed upon, for example, the same year’s Fargo. Of course, this new Irma Vep, funded partially by A24, knows that, too. “I’m told our viewers won’t find it binge-worthy,” says the main financier of the show within the show. “It’s more of a niche product.”

As in the original Irma Vep, the niche product in question is a remake of Louis Feuillade’s silent-era serial Les Vampires, the seven-hour episodic story of a journalist trying to stop a band of theatrical outlaws. The director, René Vidal (Vincent Macaigne), knows that he needs an American movie star to score a green light — a realization Assayas must have had as well. And so Vidal casts Hollywood actress Mira in the role of slinky cat burglar Irma Vep. Mira, in turn, is played by Hollywood actress Alicia Vikander, filling the skin-tight rubber outfit once worn by the now-retired Maggie Cheung and, nearly a century earlier, the silent-era French star Musidora. Strip off one layer of source material and there’s always another underneath.

Adria Arjona and Alicia Vikander get close on a couch.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Mira, who’s just come off the promotional tour surrounding a new superhero blockbuster called Doomsday, wants a change of pace. She’s also looking to put some distance between herself and Laurie (Adria Arjona), her former lover/personal assistant. (There’s a sexy scene in the pilot where Laurie, who left Mira for a filmmaker, finally flips the power imbalance in their defunct relationship, giving out the orders for once.) The melodramatic tabloid web extends back to another ex of the heroine’s, an actor named Eamonn (Tom Sturridge), who’s coincidentally also in Paris to shoot a movie.

Vikander seems a little adrift in the main role, though that could be strategic. She’s not explicitly playing herself, as Cheung was, but there are plenty of parallels to her career in Mira’s attempt to balance paycheck gigs with real acting opportunities. We’re meant to sense that the character is teetering on the edges of her desires — that her obligations as a professional in the public spotlight might be clashing with an urge to leap into her wild side, brought to the surface whenever she slips into the black S&M Irma Vep outfit. Yet at least in the show’s first half, Vikander buries that passion almost completely under an aloof people-pleasing charm. Again, though, that might be very much by design, even the point.

Assayas, whose last foray into serialized storytelling was the more urgent miniseries Carlos, takes advantage of the extended running time by building an ensemble of supporting players around Mira, and moving fluidly between subplots. He also cuts frequently to scenes from the original Les Vampires and to Vidal’s restaging of the same, as though he were smuggling his own stealth remake of the silent serial into the margins of the show. These snippets are cheap and unexciting, with an appropriately televisual flatness. Charitably, one might read them as Assayas’ dig at reboot culture and TV aesthetics, demonstrating through side-by-side comparison how little improvement can be made on the foundational early milestones of cinema.

Lars Eidinger looks moody.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Still, did we need so much of this subpar remake within the remake? It draws to mind the deeply unconvincing fake superhero movie we caught glimpses of in Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria. There’s quite a bit of that acclaimed, tricky talkathon in Irma Vep. Revina (Devon Ross), the twentysomething film-school grad Mira employs as her new assistant, is close to the same character Kristen Stewart played in Clouds: An earnest Greek chorus (and potential seductress) whispering devil’s advocate second opinions into the ear of a movie star. Her scenes epitomize the occasional explicative clunkiness of Assayas’ dialogue. Of late, his films have the habit of devolving into intellectual bull sessions where the characters unpack the themes aloud. 

At least there’s plenty to chew on. In ’96, Assayas was riffing on the absurdities of the French film industry — but also, tangentially, on the way that Hollywood action movies had come to completely dominate the conversation, overshadowing everything else. One of the most memorable scenes in the original Irma Vep found Cheung pushing back against a journalist insisting that no one was interested any more in small French art dramas, if they ever had been. Compare that to a scene in the new Irma Vep where Vikander’s Mira smiles through a round of junket questions about her superhero gig. The blockbuster machine won. Assayas is now satirizing a media landscape of endless Marvel movies (Mira keeps turning down an offer to play the Silver Surfer) and blockbusters aimed at the overseas market (Fala Chen plays a Hong Kong star hired to secure a Chinese audience).

Vincent Macaigne frets.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Some things never change, though. By Assayas’ estimation, film shoots remain battlegrounds of clashing egos, petty jealousies, and flaring hormones. On the small screen, as on the large one, Irma Vep works best as an inspired chaos-on-the-set comedy, with lots of deliciously bitter personalities volleying off each other. Mira’s co-stars include a vain, combative French thespian (Vincent Lacoste) who the director keeps putting in bodily danger to get the shot, and an aging, crack-smoking German star (Lars Eidinger) mostly addicted to his own bad-boy image. The production scenes trend toward inspired farce, fueled by running gags like the fact that nobody on the call sheet seems to have read the entire script as opposed to just their own lines.

And Assayas pokes good fun at himself with the character of Vidal, a neurotic filmmaker constantly exasperating his shrink with his insecurities. Beyond the opportunity for scathing self-deprecation, his scenes allow him to interrogate his very motives for revisiting Irma Vep. The most poignant moment in the first four episodes provided to press directly addresses the show’s most glaring omission: Maggie Cheung, who Assayas fell in love with during the shooting of the original, eventually married, and then later divorced. Her spirit hangs heavily over the series, which invents a proxy for her (you could call Irma Vep a loose sequel, given how it suggests that this Vidal is the same man who made the Les Vampires remake in the first film) and even works in old footage of Cheung scaling rooftops in that iconic catsuit. Through this element, Assayas asks himself whether it was even right to return to a project that belonged, in spirit, to both of them.

Irma Vep | Official Trailer | HBO

So much of the original Irma Vep’s bewitching alchemy could be chalked up to Cheung’s casual radiance, and to how Assayas let his fascination with it determine the zigzagging course of the loose plot. It was a shaggy movie about moviemaking built on the charisma of an international star plunked down into the comic chaos of a French shoot. It’s probably wise that Assayas hasn’t tried to replicate that exact vibe without his one-time muse, and across a much longer stretch of story. But the offhand magic of the film is missed in this more supersized, bluntly self-conscious TV version, which often seems determined to explain what Assayas once felt comfortable leaving unarticulated. Of course, the show probably knows that, too, doesn’t it?

Irma Vep‘s first episode is now streaming. New episodes premiere every Monday. For more reviews and writing by A.A. Dowd, visit his Authory page.

A.A. Dowd
A.A. Dowd, or Alex to his friends, is a writer and editor based in Chicago. He has held staff positions at The A.V. Club and…
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