An eight-part TV series about a film crew in Paris attempting a TV remake of the classic French silent film serial Les Vampires, writer-director Olivier Assayas’s 2022 take on Irma Vep is also a remake of his own nervy classic 1996 film, Irma Vep – about a film crew attempting to remake Les Vampires, and burning out in the process. Except that, at some point, it suddenly becomes clear that this new Irma Vep isn’t simply a remake of the 1996 Irma Vep after all: it’s a strange, unexpected sequel, a stubborn continuation of that story and all its eternally unfinished business, except everyone involved now has a different face; apart from the scattered actors who return from the 1996 film to haunt the sidelines as half-glimpsed phantoms, playing characters who now have different names.
A hall of mirrors reflecting on another hall of mirrors built on a graveyard, there are so many levels at work it’s worth stating that you don’t have to be aware of any of them. Irma Vep is instantly enjoyable simply on its seductive, shimmering surface as a smart, sly, freewheeling, frequently goofy film industry satire. It’s bitingly smart, it looks great, and – boasting an impeccable mixtape soundtrack that calls knowingly back the spare three-song soundtrack of 1996, and a clanging new score of baddies-tunes by Thurston Moore – it sounds terrific.
Alicia Vikander, who gets better every episode, stars as Mira, a rising Hollywood face imported to France for the Les Vampires remake. Her stock has skyrocketed due to the blockbusting success of her most recent movie, Doomsday, a big-budget superhero number, and her shark agent (Carrie Brownstein) is pushing her to return to LA to take the lead in a gender-swapped reboot of Marvel’s Silver Surfer. But Mira is intrigued by the opportunity of working with Les Vampires director René Vidal (the excellent Vincent Macaigne), an auteur with an art-for-art’s-sake reputation, offering a role that could push her in ways another comic book might not.
Directed in 1915 by the trail-blazing Louis Feuillade, the original Les Vampires is one of French cinema’s holy texts, a pop-surreal 10-part pulp epic about a criminal gang conducting slaughter around Paris, seemingly just for kicks. Irma Vep was the anagrammatic name of their rampant, unrepentant femme fatale, an incarnation of amoral passion who, as played by Musidora, a pioneering filmmaker herself, became a shadow icon. But as she pulls on Irma’s signature figure-hugging black catsuit and takes to the rooftops of Paris, Mira finds herself captured by the character in ways she hadn’t predicted. Meanwhile, Vidal’s own obsessions generate problems as he clashes with his cast and crew, and financial backers grow uneasy over his fragile mental state.
Chewing on issues of art-vs-commerce, comics-vs-‘culture’ and cinema-vs-television; dropping references to Harvey Weinstein and intimacy co-ordinators; and stirring in the tabloid-friendly travails of Mira’s failed relationships with both a former assistant and a former co-star (not to mention the looming threat of her launching disastrous new relationships with almost everyone around her), Irma Vep is lightly but bitingly on-trend as a modern backstage burlesque: Altman’s The Player and Truffaut’s Day For Night mashed up and remixed in Paris’s hippest nightclub. It’s also frequently hilarious, thanks often to Lars Eidinger, stealing scenes every time he enters them as Mira’s German co-star Gottfried, a dissipated hulk addicted equally to crack cocaine and the need to outrage.
But there’s much more going on. Underneath it all, the essential theme is the mysteriousness of the creative urge, the way movies can supplant real life for the people caught up in making them. In Assayas’s 1996 film, Maggie Cheung starred as a version of herself, playing a Hong Kong action hero travelled to Paris to play Irma Vep. She and Assayas married soon after, then divorced a few years later, a buried history that comes bubbling up to the surface as the new series unfolds. Add in the nagging references to Assayas’s other films – notably the star/personal assistant relationship that featured in his Clouds Of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper – and this becomes a fascinatingly personal feedback loop. It gets stranger and stranger as it goes. It’s full of ghosts.