Beyond the Valley of Vidals
Max Carpenter on Irma Vep (2022)
Irma Vep the film, released in theaters in 1996, is a masterful comedy, though not simply because of Jean-Pierre Léaud’s falsetto warble as washed-up auteur René Vidal. Irma Vep is a comedy because of its central contradiction: a filmmaking culture at a standstill, contemplating suicide, countered so obviously by the film’s own brilliant rush of energy and newness. The warm-colored pointillism of 16mm film grain devours Olivier Assayas’s ensemble cast, while Eric Gautier’s handheld camera bobs breathlessly from head to head at crew parties, and eventually all settle in to watch VHS transfers of high-and-low world cinema on boxy CRT TVs. This medley of clashing textures and dynamism was Irma Vep’s response to the excess and end-of-history anxiety of the 1990s, and in turn a tongue-in-cheek rebuke to what seemed to be the slow stagnation of “the auteur” as a concept. Assayas passed the Nouvelle Vague torch to himself in 1996 in what amounts to a bravura stroke of self-branding, proclaiming his arrival at a time when Chabrol, Rivette, and Rohmer were quietly releasing some of the most invigorating works of their careers. Assayas is easily excused, though, because Irma Vep effortlessly crests into the league of La Cérémonie, Joan the Maid, and A Summer’s Tale.
Irma Vep the show, released on streaming television in summer 2022, is also a comedy, but this time around the comedy has almost all to do with the actorly flourishes of the show’s ever-rotating cast. By the ten-minute mark of the first episode, Byron Bowers of The Eric Andre Show has already stolen the scene as a smooth-as-can-be sellout director, Herman, carelessly messing up his own MCU-esque movie’s title and jokingly pronouncing Detroit “De-trois” for a Paris interview. Later in the series, when Herman is brought in to replace a manic René Vidal on set, he drops some of the show’s most intoxicatingly mindless lines—“I know I’m not a Coen Brothers”—or, as he’s being whisked off set by a producer, “We still have to discuss the drones!” Herman is never more than a passing bit character, but his presence electrifies a show always on the brink of drowning in its own open-endedness.
Yes, René Vidal is back, this time played by a puppy-dog-melancholy Vincent Macaigne, who inhabits a much less ridiculous register than Léaud. Some supporting characters are revived as well, like Zoe the costumier (Jeanne Balibar rather than Nathalie Richard, though Richard appears briefly as another character), and Alex Descas’s humorless, businesslike producer Desormeaux (who is thankfully still played by Descas). As in the original film, Vidal is remaking Louis Feuillade’s classic silent crime serial Les Vampires (1915–16) as a television series, though Macaigne’s Vidal is from a younger generation than Léaud, and perhaps their key biographical difference is that Macaigne is said to have made Irma Vep the film back in 1996. (Does this mean the Isidore Isou–style short that Léaud coughed up or Assayas’s actual original meta-feature? Either way, Macaigne is now unmistakably playing Assayas himself, a hat Macaigne already wore well in 2018’s Non-Fiction.) The vague awkwardness of the tweaks to the Vidal character speaks to the general uncanniness of this reboot’s existence. Is the act of sort-of-remaking, sort-of-updating the niche property Irma Vep an idiosyncratic riff on today’s IP regurgitation machine? Sure, but Assayas only ever seems half interested in Borgesian conceits. He’s too earnest an artist.
The Vampires show-within-a-show that Vidal directs this time is a rather staid, orthodox adaptation of Feuillade’s serial, and the extended excerpts we see maintain a stagy Hammer Horror atmosphere (or, rather, an After Effects approximation of such). Perhaps a more compelling touchpoint than Hammer is a 1980 made-for-TV adaptation of Feuillade’s Fantômas—helmed by Chabrol for an episode or two—an update whose hopeless tedium almost definitely informed Assayas’s original Irma Vep film. Assayas seems at times perfectly happy to poke fun at the aesthetically questionable blue-green-tinted film grain emulation filter he’s tacking on for the fictional miniseries. Often an on-set scene will look distinctly better before the fuzzy filter is added and the aspect ratio change narrows the letterboxes. Other sequences, though, revel in cutting together the show-within-a-show footage with Feuillade’s original scenes, and the dorky celebration-of-cinema air that results can ring with thrilling sincerity. “I won’t bullshit you: I got bored more than once on this show,” reflects the hilariously brash cast member Gottfried (played with retro leather sleaze by Lars Eidinger) at a wrap party. Gottfried continues by praising Vidal and discussing a recurring theme in the show of set-haunting cinematic “ghosts,” entities to which Vidalis particularly attuned. But just as in the original 1990s Irma Vep, all this precious talk of cinema history, the anxiety of influence, and the mining of the past for present inspiration serves mainly as a cunning Trojan horse for Assayas’s journey through the private lives behind it all.
Irma Vep has always been first and foremost about the career whiplash experienced by the actress playing Irma Vep, an artsy role sandwiched hectically between big-budget film shoots. Maggie Cheung as herself in the original film isn’t given much introspective space, and Assayas’s stand-in Vidal in the new series doesn’t divulge much about Assayas’s real-life three-year marriage to Cheung that originated on that set. Assayas does include a few teary therapy scenes and some cryptic back-and-forth sessions with an apparition of Cheung (called Jade Lee, played by Vivian Wu) that hint at still-tender love wounds for Assayas, but if he is now saying anything more about his past and current love lives it is channeled through the performance of Alicia Vikander as Mira Harberg as Irma Vep.
Vikander’s Mira is introduced glamorously, stepping out of a private jet and into a black Mercedes van. The roving camera and slick editing that accompany her entry in the show’s first seconds echo the original film in their caffeinated freneticism, but as she slides into the black leather interior of the van with her Deleuze-reading cinephile assistant (played by Devon Ross) the pace calms and the focal point becomes Vikander’s put-on American accent: Bay Area podcaster meets moisturizer commercial voiceover, though with a little rounded huskiness that betrays a latent British timbre by way of Sweden. It’s a layered tone that undeniably adds to Irma Vep’s melting-pot subtext, but in an initial exchange with the listless vocal fry of Devon Ross, the effect is incongruous with the Irma Vep of our collective cinephile subconscious. Is this a new season of Succession where the über rich are replaced by the merely rich of the film world?
Mira has recently been jilted by her lover and former assistant, Laurie (Adria Arjona), who pointedly left her for Herman, the director of Mira’s last big film. Mira had broken up her straight and comfortable relationship with fellow actor Eamonn (Tom Sturridge) before that, and Eamonn, who is also in Paris on a separate shoot, seems better off with his new star-singer girlfriend (revealed as Kristen Stewart in the final episode). It’s hard not to search for connections to Assayas’s relationships with Cheung and Mia Hansen-Løve, both of whom he met on his own 1990s film sets, and who both left him amicably, but Mira’s story is specifically about the sting of early adult romance. Each of the people in Mira’s general circle of former loves and present flirtations haunts her through some combination of regret, jealousy, brokenheartedness, still-alive feelings, forgiveness, and an embrace of an unknown future while she slinks sylphlike atop nighttime Paris rooftops in high heels and her character’s skintight black velvet onesie. As the show progresses, this suit—this Musidora character—allows her to eavesdrop on strangers, specifically on her exes and Vidal, and has the added quirk of allowing her to walk through walls. The suit’s true power, though, lies in the wisdom that comes from the calm remove it provides. All of Mira’s affairs are increasingly imbued with a meditative catatonia. When a regressive fling with Eamonn drives Mira to a private sobbing fit on set, Mira quickly regains her composure and jumps back into gear. “I’m the reliable one. I can’t break down.” She’s right on a meta level as well: Mira is the show’s anchor; her delicate balance of passionate focus and a dissociative curiosity is the lifeblood of Irma Vep. Raw emotion threatens this balance.
The series is swimming in subtext: Assayas’s boomer repudiations and embraces of identity politics; the aforesaid topic of cinema’s ghosts, accentuated by Devon Ross’s brief iPhone screen rush-through of Kenneth Anger’s Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome; arty cinema in an age of streaming and Marvel; arty lives in an age of increased virtual communication; the queer-coded world-citizen status of Irma Vep herself. And it offers the specificities of a roman à clef: is the big-budget A-lister Mira Harberg, who vaunts her own cinephile bona fides and her adoration of Vidal’s work while untangling her bisexual romances, not at times a dead ringer for Kristen Stewart, herself the star of two recent Assayas films? None of these ideas distinctly matters in itself. They’re all ruminant cud for pensive cinephiles and dreamers alike. The lives on screen are, for the most part, quite well-off, leisurely, and steeped in enough success and opportunity that nothing feels high stakes, not even Vidal’s manic episodes or Gottfried’s near death. Assayas and Macaigne and Vikander have together built a vessel that sails dispassionately, almost satirically, definitely lovingly, past the adult lives of the film art elites. Compared to Irma Vep the film, the comedic moments cut less deep, the cinephilic concerns are far less urgent, and the pathos is stretched well beyond the point of bathos. Why, then, is this miniseries such a rare, uniquely stimulating pleasure?
In the 1990s, Assayas shot a run of three features on Super 16: Cold Water (1994), Irma Vep, and Late August, Early September (1998). These titles marked a formidable emergence on the international film market, and have also served, each in its own way, to shape the course of his life and works in their decades-long wake. They dripped with influence—Pialat’s elliptical editing and dynamic performances, Rohmer’s meandering conversations, specific shots from Bresson, the film grain of Rivette’s punkish early films—and Assayas loaded them with vaguely autobiographical details and college-radio soundtracks that played Ali Farka Touré alongside Nico’s Desertshore and Nine Inch Nails snippets. It was his youthful rock-and-roll period, and the smoke has long since cleared. Two decades on, his films cause less of a stir and are perhaps not without some middle-age complacency, but the sumptuous embrace of his camera choreography, a palpable love for his actors, and, above all, a commitment to reckoning with the reality of the present are still alive and more demonstrably his own than before.
Assayas knows René Vidal is laughable in his self-seriousness; he wrote him that way. But Vidal also knows something that few of the other characters seem willing or able to embrace: that the stakes of life and art are always high—life-or-death high—and staying attuned to the vitality of this pursuit is rarely cool, always improbably expensive, and often a ruiner of relationships. When Mira parrots this Vidalian intensity in conversations with other characters (“Movies are a portal to some sort of spiritual world”) her disarming earnestness feels satirical; if this were a 99-minute movie it would be just that—a satire. Assayas this time around gives himself and us just enough space to dare ourselves, if only for a moment, to embrace a cinephilia that might feel ridiculous, to take the satire seriously.