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Irma-Vep-1 (1).jpeg

HBO's Fresh, Meta, and Mind-Twisty 'Irma Vep' Is a Blast

By Alison Lanier | TV | June 17, 2022 |

By Alison Lanier | TV | June 17, 2022 |

Irma-Vep-1 (1).jpeg

Alicia Vikander is the A-list lead actor at the helm of the eight-part series Irma Vep, inspired by the 1916 serial Les Vampires. She plays Mira, the A-list lead actor at the helm of an eight-part series called Irma Vep, inspired by the 1916 serial Les Vampires. The show is the dramatized story of Irma Vep’s hectic production, a show-within-a-show, with Mira sliding between the valences of art and character, understanding and inhabiting the iconic Irma Vep — evil muse of the Vampire crime gang. Vikander’s performance is fantastically grounded, shifting from an “I need coffee” zombie walk out of her hotel to the cat-burglar elegance of Irma Vep in her black catsuit on the roofs of Paris, transforming sometimes in the space of a breath. Mira and Irma mirror one another, actor melding into role, character bleeding into actor. The boundary between them increasingly becomes a mirage, impossible to pinpoint and impossible to look away from.

Olivier Assayas will direct the entire series, and so far he’s shepherding it with all his hallmark patient, painstaking grace of his recent films like Personal Shopper or Clouds of Sils Maria. In the show itself, Vincent Macaigne plays René Vidal, Irma Vep’s frantic, perfectionist director constantly on the edge of either implosion or explosion. It’s a funhouse mirror of a story, and Assayas embraces the humor of it to tremendous effect.

The show feels more like an extended Assayas film than anything else. As Vidal exclaims indignantly in one scene with his psychiatrist, he is not making a series—he’s making a film that just happens to be divided into eight parts. Mira, in the first episode, tells an interviewer that she has in fact seen the original Les Vampires, and that she loves to brag about it because it’s about seven hours long. Eight episodes at 50 minutes each adds up to … You see where I’m going with this?

But that’s the level of meta Irma Vep achieves: everything from the camera angles to the runtime are a reference to something else, a startlingly naturalistic performance with one foot in the world of reality and one foot in the story. The visual effect of the show-within-a-show makes Vidal’s footage appear film-like, as opposed to non-footage scenes, a subtle level of care that speaks to the precision of every choice that went into constructing this maze of a series.

Assayas directed the original Irma Vep in 1996 with his future wife Maggie Cheung in the lead—essentially playing herself, a Hong Kong action star named Maggie, through a prismatic lens which makes it difficult to draw the line between actor and character. That’s the heart of Irma Vep’s magic: it’s show about the production of a show, a remake of a remake, a turtles-all-the-way-down meta storytelling that pulls off its sleight of hand without feeling the need to be pompous or self-important about it.

The muted queerness of the original 1996 version is fully unmuted in 2022. Mira is flirtatious, sensual, and openly bi, navigating the complex and sometimes toxic intimacies of her past and potential relationships. Adria Arjona appears as Laurie, a dominating force in the first two episodes whose entanglement with Mira is both gripping and grotesque in its obviously manipulative unhealthy aftermath.

The show also doesn’t suffer from the same drastic drop in quality after the first episode that other auteur-lite shows (see: Tokyo Vice) endured. Take note Michael Mann: you can direct every episode of your prestige HBO drama, and it’s probably a good idea.

Irma Vep (the HBO series) has already stepped past the most drastic actor-into-character transformation that Maggie arrived at in the original—wearing her costume to commit a small, private, very real robbery. So where the Assayas will take Mira’s journey is guaranteed to be something new and very likely more extreme.

I for one am thrilled to see the show off to such a strong and confident start. It’s well worth jumping onboard now, to take this voyage in real-time.

As a side note, did anyone else just realize Assayas is Jacques Rémy’s son?