PRINT October 2022



Irma Vep, 2022, production still from Olivier Assayas’s TV miniseries on HBO. Mira Harberg (Alicia Vikander). Photo: Carole Bethuel.

SOMETIMES THE WAY OUT is the way through. With Irma Vep (2022), an eight-part miniseries reprising his 1996 film of the same name, Olivier Assayas dives headlong into the sorry state of twenty-first-century cinema: superheroes, endorsement deals, the menace of “quality” television. He depicts a world in which the old idea of the noble seventh art has definitively withered. If the repetitiveness of contemporary popular media is part of the problem—as Adorno memorably put it, “Bourgeois commodities . . . must touch up the ever-same as the ever-new in order to win customers”—then Assayas proposes that repetition might also be the solution, provided that it is twisted by the torque of personal obsession. By remaking the film that brought him international recognition, which is itself about a director remaking Louis Feuillade’s 1915–16 serial Les vampires, he piles metafiction upon metafiction. But whereas his 1996 feature was low-budget and shot in twenty days, mostly with a handheld camera on Super 16, the 2022 miniseries is a lush production by HBO and A24, dripping with Louis Vuitton logos. Times have changed. Not that the new Irma Vep is any kind of capitulation, any sort of elegy for an art cinema presumed dead. Reflecting on its mode of production at every turn, this experimental and entertaining series asserts the enduring power of cinema’s ghostly reanimations. Let us all be haunted by the haunted medium of the movies, it whispers, for that is how the past will continue to live and how the truly new might come into being.

Art imitates art and art imitates life. Who’s to say where one begins and another ends?

At the center of the palimpsest is Hollywood superstar Alicia Vikander, playing Hollywood superstar Mira Harberg. She arrives in Paris with a double purpose: to promote her latest blockbuster and to incarnate Irma Vep, the evil catsuit-clad muse of a criminal gang called the Vampires, in a serialized adaptation of Feuillade’s classic, directed by René Vidal (Vincent Macaigne). A little like Kristen Stewart, who began to appear in Assayas’s films fresh out of the Twilight franchise, Vikander (aka Tomb Raider Lara Croft) and Harberg both make career detours by participating in Assayas’s and Vidal’s miniseries (or are they multipart films?). And, like Assayas, whose 1996 Irma Vep was anchored by Maggie Cheung, a megastar in Hong Kong and his wife from 1998 to 2001, Vidal is taking a second stab at Les vampires, following an earlier outing starring Jade Lee (Vivian Wu), with whom he was once romantically involved. (Not coincidentally, Jade Lee is the name of Cheung’s character in 1988’s Paper Marriage.)

Irma Vep, 2022, still from Olivier Assayas’s TV miniseries on HBO. Episode 5, “Hypnotic Eyes.” René Vidal (Vincent Macaigne).

In short, art imitates art and art imitates life. Who’s to say where one begins and another ends? Like its on-set cousins Beware of a Holy Whore (Rainer Werner Fassbinder, 1971) and Day for Night (François Truffaut, 1973), Irma Vep foregrounds the social and affective intensities of the filmmaking process. Making a movie takes a village, and the villagers are restless. Behind the scenes, Vidal’s shoot is rife with conflicts and alliances, sex and addiction, dis- and reappearances, all brought to life by formidable performers, including Jeanne Balibar, Alex Descas, Lars Eidinger, and Nora Hamzawi. (Despite Vikander’s star power, this is undeniably an ensemble achievement.) Yet unlike Fassbinder and Truffaut, who assert a separation between the film-within-a-film and the working world of cast and crew, Assayas multiplies narrative levels and bleeds them together in increasingly hallucinatory ways. In addition to the “reality” of the shoot, there are sequences from Vidal’s miniseries, rendered in an emphatically digital palette altogether at odds with the black-and-white film stock used in 1996; dramatizations from the autobiography of Musidora, née Jeanne Roques, the original Irma Vep; and ample excerpts from both Feuillade’s Les vampires and Assayas’s 1996 riff on the same. He cuts dynamically across registers, loosening distinctions between them. This seepage is not only formal: Irma Vep turns out to be more than just a role for Mira, who begins to channel the spirit of the villainess on her own time. Cinema is a dream machine that overflows its bounds, enlivening reality, which itself feeds back into captivating images.

Several characters ask Vidal a question that has no doubt been posed to Assayas: Why Feuillade? And why Feuillade again? The seven-hour Les Vampires appeared just as the serial form was being eclipsed by the feature film, which in turn enjoyed a relative dominance until recently, when prestige TV and the digital dissemination of short clips conspired to transform production and reception habits. It’s a perfect time to recall that cinema is older, and has always taken shapes other than the feature format. That said, Assayas’s interest in Les vampires goes beyond the matter of the serial; he didn’t, after all, choose to give the redux treatment to The Perils of Pauline (1914). It has to do with Feuillade’s ethos, which the filmmaker Alain Resnais encapsulates nicely:

People say there is a Méliès tradition in the cinema, and a Lumière tradition: I believe there is also a Feuillade current, one which marvelously links the fantastic side of Méliès with the realism of Lumière, a current which creates mystery and evokes dreams by the use of the most banal elements of daily life.

With Irma Vep, Assayas is downstream in the Feuillade current, blending fantastical elements (walking through walls, conversing with ghosts) with a granular attention to all that happens as a film comes into being (parties, insurance troubles, coffee spilled while napping in a car on the way to an early-morning call). He is never afraid to make the real strange and the strange real or to court the outlandish. It’s pop—HBO wouldn’t have commissioned it otherwise—and yet not solely, not unlike Feuillade, who was beloved by the avant-garde while working within the masscult idiom of the crime serial.

Irma Vep, 2022, still from Olivier Assayas’s TV miniseries on HBO. Episode 1, “The Severed Head.”

Les vampires possesses little concern for moral rectitude; some episodes were temporarily banned in Paris at the time of their release for supposedly glamorizing criminality. And Irma Vep is the story of a male director’s obsession with female stars of the past and present. What does it mean for Assayas to resuscitate this vision today, when demands for positive images abound, and when it might be time to jettison muse narratives once and for all? The miniseries takes on these questions in ways scarcely present in its 1996 precursor. Macaigne’s Vidal is criticized at length for eroticizing a scene of gendered violence, one that happens to be the same bit of Les vampires that the 1996 Vidal, played by French New Wave regular Jean-Pierre Léaud, shows Maggie at their first meeting as evidence of the magic of Irma Vep. The series leans extensively on the feminist recuperation of Musidora, who was not only a hypnotic star in a catsuit, somehow more naked than if she were nude, but also a writer and director in her own right, as well as an employee of the Cinémathèque Française and namesake of the first women’s film festival to take place in France, in 1974. Whereas Maggie remains a fetishized foreign object, ill at ease within the group—her status compounded by racial difference—Mira is modeled in emotional depth and often calls the shots. Ultimately, how-ever, Assayas maintains a firm stake in the enchanting spectacle of female beauty and in the idea of cinema as a space of fantasy.

In the 1996 film, there is no risk of mistaking Léaud’s Vidal as a proxy for Assayas. The casting of the boy wonder of the Nouvelle Vague, by then grown old, clearly frames the embattled director as the embodiment of the superannuated cinema of an earlier generation. But it seems that Assayas is one of the many with autofiction on the brain of late. His 2018 sex comedy, Non-Fiction, stars Macaigne as Léonard, a novelist whose most recent book recounts his own life. There, too, it would be wrong to see the male artist as a directorial alter ego. Yet when Macaigne returns as Vidal, Assayas finally puts a version of himself—and by no means a flattering one—on-screen. Vidal’s fragility and awkward charm are palpable, but he is petulant and mercurial, neglectful of his family, unable to see beyond the bounds of his own obsessions. Moreover, as a counterweight to the heroic notion of the exacting auteur as imperious master of the filmic universe, Irma Vep offers something more deflationary, more materialist. The real masters are the men with money, who finance Vidal’s project not out of faith in artistic greatness but to butter up a star they want for a cosmetics campaign. Is the same true of Assayas’s Irma Vep? Does it matter?

Erika Balsom is a reader in film studies at King’s College, London.