MIra Harberg (Alicia Vikander), an actor, zips through Paris in a car after the premiere of her latest movie, an inane sci-fi blockbuster. “I thought it was kind of OK,” says her assistant, Regina. Watch laughs in disbelief. At least it’s the final premiere, and it has brought her to France, away from a failed relationship, and where she is about to start shooting a new project. Something worthy and arty and European – a remake of the (real) 1915 Louis Feuillade serial, Les Vampires.
Irma Vep (Sky Atlantic/Now) is a fun, spiky eight-part series that is so meta it makes my head hurt. Mira’s character in the arthouse remake is Irma Vep, a velvet-catsuited villainess and part of the criminal gang known as the Vampires – “pure evil but in a sexy kind of way”, as René Vidal (Vincent Macaigne), the director, explains to her. Irma Vep also happens to be the real-life name of a 1996 film by Olivier Assayas, who has written and directed this show. Here, René also made an earlier Irma Vep film and married its star, as did Assayas, who married the actor Maggie Cheung, who played Vep in his 1996 film. Yes, goal all the way.
So Assayas has made a TV remake of his own film, which was about making a remake of the 1915 original, with a director (named René Vidal in both) who is based on Assayas himself. I don’t even know if I’ve got that right, but it doesn’t really matter – it stands up without having to know the history – except to raise the idea that it’s all very clever.
It mostly is. It has great ideas, expressed in entertaining ways, about the difference (or not) between art and “content”, and the jaundiced pall money casts over everything. René, the struggling auteur, is determined to stay true to Feuillade’s vision, but the cosmetics corporation financing the project is more interested in making Mira the new face of their perfume brand. Mira wants to be taken seriously, even if her agent is trying to get her to cash in and become the female Silver Surfer.
I don’t have a high tolerance for films (or in this case TV programmes) about film-making, but Irma Vep has appealing bite – mainly of the hand that feeds it, with all the trashing of prestige TV the characters do. René refuses to accept he is making television. “It’s a film,” he quibbles, “admittedly a bit long, divided into eight pieces.” His cast of him sit around in a later episode, debating the merits of cinema versus the streaming giants, and the obsession with ratings and marketing, even the shift in the balance of power towards rabid online fans. “Because we have platforms, they need content, so you stretch the content,” says Edmond, one of René’s leads. “You adapt to the market – that’s the opposite of art.”
Is René remaking Irma Vep because the industry is now so reliant on reboots, or is it because he still has, as his therapist suggests, “unresolved” issues following his divorce from his star? Regardless, it’s a thankless shoot, dealing with unbiddable actors who can’t understand their characters’ motivations, or are angling for sex scenes, complete with intimacy directors (this being 2022), as a way to get close to former lovers.
The supporting characters – and cast – are wonderful, from the smart, film-obsessed Regina (Devon Ross), who wants to be a director but whose job is to nanny Mira, to the seen-it-all-before costume director Zoe ( Jeanne Balibar) and the obscene, and scene-stealing, crack-addicted German actor Gottfried (Lars Eidinger).
It’s a visual treat for those of us who got hooked on chic Frenchness via Call My Agent; even Emily in Paris gets a wry name check here. And it is funny, particularly René’s farcical film shoot. When we’re thrown a self-referential bone – a Sonic Youth T-shirt here (the band’s Thurston Moore has done the music), an actor from the 1996 film popping up there – you can either feel clever for spotting it, or view it as Assayas skewering the tiresome trend for referencing everything.
There are some boring scenes, and even bad ones – those between Mira and her former assistant and lover, Laurie, who is now married to Herman, the blockbuster’s director, are marred not only by lack of chemistry but also by some painful exposition. By this point, you might be wondering if Assayas is having us on. Entertaining, disorienting, at times annoying, Irma Vep is like being tickled.