Irma Vep: a cinephile fantasy made flesh

Olivier Assayas’s TV series – a new take on the ideas that drove his own 1996 film of the same name – is a glorious, gluttonous delight.

2 August 2022

By Catherine Wheatley

Alicia Vikander in Irma Vep (2022)
Sight and Sound

The fictional director at the centre of Olivier Assayas’s eight-part TV series Irma Vep is obsessed with catsuits. It’s a fetish that stems, apparently, from his teenage infatuation with Diana Rigg’s Emma Peel in the 1960s series The Avengers. But one could chart the history of film itself through the shifting fabrics draped over the female form: from Musidora’s matte silk in Louis Feuillade’s 1915 Les Vampires through Michelle Pfeiffer’s polished PVC to Scarlett Johanssen’s scarlet leather. In the first episode of Irma Vep, Alicia Vikander’s Hollywood starlet Mira Harberg trades a white latex one-piece for soft, black velvet. The seemingly straightforward costume swap is symbolic of so many of Assayas’s interests: with Hollywood and Europe, spectacle and substance, film’s past and future, and the boundless other contradictions embodied by its female stars.

Fresh off the back of tremendous box office success with the Marvel-esque superhero movie Doomsday, Mira has come to Paris to work with the respected but unpredictable director René Vidal (a marvellously neurotic Vincent Macaigne) on a remake of Feuillade’s seven-hour, ten-part film, taking the role made famous by Musidora. Burned by two high-profile relationships and bored of Hollywood filmmaking (Doomsday is “OK”, shrugs Mira, “but I wouldn’t pay to watch it”), Mira wants a change of scene. Her new assistant, film school graduate and Deleuze fan Regina (Devon Ross), is thrilled by her turn to the indie art scene; her venal agent Zelda (Carrie Brownstein) is horrified.

For her part, Mira seems mostly bemused. Vidal has a history of erratic behaviour, depression and violence towards his male cast members, and the production is constantly under threat of being shut down. The French actors are narcissistic and opinionated; German co-star Gottfried (Lars Eidinger) can only perform after smoking crack, which he tasks the production manager with sourcing for him. “This is not my world”, Mira tells costumier Zoe.

This is Assayas’s second version of Irma Vep. The first, a 97-minute feature, was released in 1996, and starred Maggie Cheung – arguably the hottest actress in the world at that moment – as herself. The film, among other things a reflection on the place of French cinema in a global marketplace, combined Gallic cinephilia with a slick, postmodern aesthetic influenced in no small part by the Hong Kong action cinema that was dominating cinemas at the time. Cheung’s catsuit was glossy leather.

Slices of the 1996 film are cut into the TV version, alongside rushes and playback from Vidal’s diegetic film, footage from Feuillade’s original film, interview footage of that film’s star Musidora, and later fictional recreations of the latter’s memoirs, in which Vikander et al now play the original cast. Mira worries she won’t live up to the part of Irma Vep, inhabited as it has been by two such genuinely iconic actresses (it’s an overused term, but it applies here).

Vikander – a strangely chameleonic actress – certainly lacks the same spirit of the age. She seems to be playing a version of Kristen Stewart (who has collaborated with Assayas on two films), whose personal life has overlaps with Mira’s, and who is a better candidate for a modern-day “it girl”. (Comparing interview footage of Stewart and Assayas with dialogues between Vidal and Harberg, the similarities are uncanny.)

But Vikander has other strengths. Her training as a ballet dancer, for example, lends a sinuous quality to her performance as Vep: inhabiting the role, Mira is transformed. And while Macaigne and Vikander take the leads, one advantage of the extended format is the space it gives the supporting players, not one of whom is miscast. Vincent Lacoste and Hippolyte Girardot are terrifically hammy as Mira’s co-stars, and Eidinger, as the outrageously dissolute Gottfried, is an absolute hoot. Jeanne Balibar, Nora Hamzawi and Alex Descas provide support as Vidal’s put-upon crew.

In between the existential reflection, romantic intrigues, and financial hustling, there are reflections on the history of the medium (early cinema was just content to sell the new film technology, Regina points out; and the TV series itself is of course a return to serialisation). It’s a glorious, gluttonous, nonsensical delight: a cinephile fantasy made flesh. It will inevitably draw comparisons to the equally delightful but far less ambitious Call My Agent!, but I was reminded of Truffaut’s La Nuit Américaine, and its constant refrain that both women and movies are magic.

► Irma Vep is available to stream on Now TV.

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