Irma Vep, HBO drama series starring Alicia Vikander, sees director Olivier Assayas revisit theme of his 1996 film with fascinating results
- In HBO series, Alicia Vikander plays a Hollywood actress who arrives in Paris to play the title role in a vampire serial adaptation, only to find a set in chaos
- French auteur’s tone is playful – his director character tried to film the story himself, then wed its lead actress, as Assayas wed 1996 film’s Maggie Cheung
This article contains minor spoilers.
Cheung and Assayas married in 1998, only to divorce three years later.
At last month’s Cannes Film Festival, Assayas unveiled the first three episodes of his new eight-part remake of Irma Vep for HBO, in which Alicia Vikander plays an in-demand Hollywood actress who arrives in the French capital to play the same black-clad heroine.
The subject matter of Assayas’ new interpretation remains largely the same, but his approach this time is markedly different. The expanded run-time allows him to explore a number of different themes, either absent from or only suggested in his earlier film.
The most notable difference is, of course, the change in leading lady. Maggie Cheung played herself in the 1996 film, as a graceful yet vulnerable fish out of water whose superstar status at home was somewhat lost on the French crew.
Throughout the production shown in the film, Cheung wrestles with culture shock and a language barrier, falling back on English as her default means of communication, which it transpires she has a greater command of than many of her new colleagues.
Vikander’s take on the character differs in a number of significant areas. Firstly she is not playing herself, but American actress Mira Harberg, who is in Paris on a whirlwind publicity tour for a huge science-fiction blockbuster that has propelled her onto the Hollywood A-list. Harberg also arrives nursing a broken heart.
After dumping her boyfriend, a British actor named Eamonn (Tom Sturridge), she embarked on a fling with her longtime personal assistant Laurie (Adria Arjona) until the latter began an affair with Herman (Byron Bowers), Harberg’s director on the film she is now promoting.
With all concerned now in Paris, Harberg is all the more eager to immerse herself in her new role. What she discovers, however, is a production every bit as chaotic as that helmed by Jean-Pierre Léaud’s character back in 1996.
Vincent Macaigne is wonderful as infuriating visionary auteur René Vidal, beholden to Feuillade’s source material, from which we see numerous clips, and determined to reimagine it faithfully on screen. Unfortunately, he is eccentric, inarticulate, and at loggerheads with almost everyone.
His leading man (Vincent Lacoste) wants to insert a sex scene into the script between him and his ex-girlfriend, his villain (Lars Eidinger) arrives with a debilitating drug problem, the financiers are insisting that Harberg sign on to their global cosmetics campaign, while the producers are threatening to shut down production after learning about Vidal’s history of violent instability.
Harberg has seen the power dynamic between her and her previous PA upended, and there is already the suggestion that Laurie’s replacement, precocious film graduate Regina (Devon Ross), wields more influence over her employer than merely organising her schedule.
The slinky, black-clad character of Irma Vep is revered as an icon of silent cinema who embodies female empowerment and sexual liberation. Her essence also wields influence and control over the actresses who portray her, from Musidora back in 1916, to Cheung and now Harberg.
Assayas teased viewers about his characters’ sexuality in his 1996 film, although the advances made by costumier Zoe (Nathalie Richard) were politely rebuffed by Cheung back then. Harberg is far more adventurous in her relationships, as is her chaotic on-screen antagonist (Eidinger), who proclaims during an interview that he used to be gay until he discovered “they’re all communists”.
As if the show wasn’t meta-textual enough, Assayas drags himself into the mix in episode 3, when it is revealed that Vidal attempted to film Irma Vep some years earlier, with as his lead the fictional Hong Kong actress Jade Lee (Vivian Wu), to whom Vidal was later briefly married. It’s a playfully confessional moment from Assayas that almost in itself justifies his desire to revisit this material.
The scathing critique of the French film industry that is at the heart of his earlier film makes way for an infinitely more playful tone. Commenting on everything from the coronavirus pandemic to the rise of streaming platforms and the increasingly blurred lines between film and television, fiction and reality, the bewitching power of Irma Vep appears to be growing ever stronger.
Irma Vep will start streaming on HBO Go on June 7.