Still from Irma Vep limited series, directed by Olivier Assayas.
Credit: Carole Bethuel/HBO
by Patrick Preziosi by Ryan Swen Feature Articles Featured Film

Irma Vep — Olivier Assayas: A Dialogue on Episodes 1–4

July 7, 2022

Patrick: Hi there Ryan. Happy to be corresponding with you once again! And on the deceptively dense new work from Olivier Assayas, a miniseries revamp (reboot? remake? retooling?) of his 1996 film Irma Vep. I’d originally thought this’d be something I’d be taking on all by my lonesome — I let myself be moderately turned off by the conceit of such a project, given its very chic and possibly pandering partnered backing of A24 and HBO — but I’ve been bowled over by just how much stuff the show covers, and realized I needed help.

The original film is arguably the first film of Assayas’ defining obsession with contemporaneity, pointing forward toward Demonlover, Boarding Gate all the way up to and beyond Clouds of Sils Maria. With Maggie Cheung as the displaced actress starring in a doomed remake of Louis Feuillade’s silent serial Les Vampires, the director condensed a whole modern cinema dialectic into a brief 97 minutes, a far cry from this series’ eight, near-hour-long episodes. However, the humorous, and maddening, exigencies of a 21st-century film crew tackling an early 20th-century serial are given the proper breathing room, and compared to Jean-Pierre Léaud’s paltry experimentation in the original, there’s the added pressure of some sort of finished product emerging from all this commotion. Coupled with a cast that may initially pale in comparison to the 1996 film, Assayas nevertheless acclimates his working methods to the flattening of the contemporary film landscape, the anonymity of the stars (a trait that Alicia Vikander wonderfully pushes back against), the prevalence of financing issues, mistakes being taken care of “in post” so that the whole operation can keep chugging along.

For all the intense and jittery refashioning of various cultural industries with real-world analogues across his films, it’s important to note how much of the actual thematic legwork Assayas does on the part of the viewer. Thinly veiled director and celebrity proxies, discourse that skirts the outmoded and didactic but that’s often also very funny, self-deprecating enough so that the obvious or merely agreeable still lands with spoken purpose, all these Assayasisms find a home in Irma Vep. The very “why?” of the miniseries’ existence, considering the renown of its predecessor, is incorporated into the show’s very fabric, Assayas himself often asking the same questions, and intriguingly — and admirably — coming up blank.

What are your thoughts on the show so far Ryan? Do you also find this discursiveness intentionally circuitous?

Ryan: Hi Patrick, I’m glad to be corresponding with you again too! Like you, and probably most of our friends, the announcement of Irma Vep the series was met with dismay, partly because of the A24/HBO branding and partly because the concept seemed so pointless: Irma Vep the film — which I had seen a while back, liked, and then came to adore upon watching it just now — is in its own way a kind of imperfectly perfect object, a jumbled catalog of anxiety and desire that blazes through its compressed runtime largely on the force of Cheung and Léaud’s inimitable performances and film-historical iconicness. To try to resurrect the project in such an attenuated form seemed even more of a fool’s errand than to try to remake Les Vampires; unexpectedly, that fool turned out to be Assayas himself, filming his first full-on television series. Our hopes rose and then fell back again when Alicia Vikander was announced; without trying to disparage the actress too much, she doesn’t have a quarter of Cheung’s grace or zeitgeist-seizing impact.

There was another aspect to my skepticism: in between my first viewing of Irma Vep and now, I watched Feuillade’s Les Vampires (and thereafter Fantômas and Tih-Minh), which I hold to be among the greatest (and most entertaining) films ever made, and the concept of doing a near-impossible remake of the filming of a near-impossible remake seemed too far away to properly deal with the serial. I’m exceptionally fond of Michael Atkinson’s piece for Moving Image Source that posited Feuillade’s cinema — in light of the fast-paced, improvisatory narrative that dovetailed with his gift for staging dynamic long shots and action to produce something that functioned both as a documentary portrait of Paris in the 1910s and as its own hallucinatory and surreal mirror — as the opposing strain of film’s possibilities to that of Griffith and the Hollywood studios; he placed such disparate filmmakers as Antonioni, Ozu, Hou, and Apichatpong in Feuillade’s lineage, but he very well might have cited Assayas as well.

Of course, the scrappy Assayas of 1996 is not entirely the well-established Assayas of 2022, but neither is the film world, or perhaps more accurately the “content world.” I love your use of the word “acclimates”: it gives the sense that Assayas’ style is in many ways protean, willing to adapt to the container in which his films play out, even an only slightly improved version of the superficially bland aesthetic that typifies Peak TV.

As a side note, one of the things that captivated me most from the start was the cast; the absence of Cheung is sorely (if strategically) felt, but the ensemble cast is virtually a who’s who of great European actors: Vincent Macaigne (as Léaud’s character), Vincent Lacoste, Jeanne Balibar, Lars Eidinger, Alex Descas (seemingly reprising his role from the film), Pascal Greggory, and Nora Hamzawi among others, most deliberately echoing characters and production roles from the original. Much of the pleasure of this for me so far is indeed seeing these presences pinball off each other, playing as much more of a comedy (however fractious) than the more bitter film did.

Thus, discursiveness is the lifeblood of both film and show, which readily pause the “main” plot of filming to follow various internecine squabbles, debates about artistry versus commercialism, and explanations of performativity. As central as Cheung and Vikander are to their respective works, they often function as conduits, a means to view and highlight the multiplicity of views among artists. The Assayas film I’ve been thinking of most, even more than the blatant echoes of the actress-assistant homoerotic relationship — turned up to eleven here — in Clouds of Sils Maria, is Non-Fiction (starring Macaigne and Hamzawi), which let the often contradictory and willfully unproductive discourses about analog versus digital outstrip and inflect the romantic farce it supposedly was. In that way, in Assayas’ work the discursiveness itself is the why, an exploration of ideas and biases allowed to spool out in much greater length than usual, with all the unevenness and moments of revelation that it entails.

I realize that my circuitousness here was much less intentional than Assayas’, but as you say, there’s a surprising amount of stuff to parse here. What do you think so far about the structure Assayas is using, and how the episodes function as a serial, in the vein of Feuillade or not?

Patrick: I’m glad you hit on Assayas’ protean capabilities, Ryan, which makes me think that perhaps a shift to this sort of contemporary television was more inevitable than we thought (disqualifying Carlos here, whose three parts play more as self-contained films than “episodes”), considering his consistently fruitful preoccupation with the contemporaneous. The production of the original Les Vampires itself is so antithetical to the suffocating standards of modern television, where everything is drowning in exposition and shallow closure, that even for a singular director like Assayas, I don’t think he’d be able to replicate its improvisational spirit, which was also bolstered by a certain on-set pettiness: if you were late to a shoot, Feuillade could have easily excised your character, and you’d find an unceremonious death scene awaiting you. Each episode has a corresponding Les Vampires title (“The Severed Head,” etc.), which also hints at what the governing film work for the next 55 minutes will be.

These titles are mostly window dressing, but Assayas replicates the real life, ego-clashing dynamics within his own film crew; Macaigne’s director may frequently pledge allegiance to Feuillade, constantly shooting down outside advice and opting for fidelity to the text, though the final footage that we’re treated to is mostly bloodless (not a small feat, making something look intentionally flawed without elucidating a director’s own shortcomings), a perfect distillation of its impossible aspirations. The jittery widescreen of Macaigne’s Les Vampires, replete with these obnoxious long tracking takes, is pretty far removed from Feuillade’s modest inventiveness, which was always conscious of the edges of the 4:3 frame, villains emerging from the edges and the background in mostly static compositions. The television show excerpts play like a bargain-bin Assayas, and honestly, I found it to be a pretty frank admission of the director that something like this would never work, even for as fierce and incisive a cinephile and craftsman as he is, which is a temperament that also cut through in the original Irma Vep, as embodied by Léaud, whose surviving reels are unabashedly tattered and experimental.

The spirit of Les Vampires is instead preserved and built upon in the backstage drama, modulated for a contemporary setting. The encouraged improv is mostly gone, but in its place is this steadfast commitment to cataloging artistic back and forth, even if the finished product will be flattened out and bowdlerized. Edmond (Vincent Lacoste), in the protagonist’s role of Philippe Guérande, seems to be totally oblivious to the detective’s inefficiencies, which is integral to Les Vampires’ unpredictable rhythms (one gets the impression that he hasn’t done his research, like Mira clearly has). He’s constantly insisting on anything that’ll make him appear “cool,” not tipped off by the fact that he’s dual-wielding pistols while in a nightgown and cap. Long before the advent of incessant celebrity reportage, much less the internet, Les Vampires had the retroactive benefit of being able to unflaggingly move along to Feuillade’s whims. Macaigne has to placate his players, who do interviews and appearances and whatnot in their downtime — the MVP is undoubtedly Lars Eidinger’s Gottfried, the crack-addicted, renounced gay theatre performer, a Frankenstein’s monster amalgamation of different iterations of the universal actor id, perpetually accessorized vape included.

Assayas also keeps one of my favorite undersung traditions of French cinema alive, with characters who make sure to assert their lofty opinions on cinema — “Feuillade was no Dreyer,” says Mira at one point — without ever expressing an interest in casual moviegoing or watching (I’m thinking specifically of Jean Yanne in Maurice Pialat’s We Won’t Grow Old Together or Léaud in Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore). Even Macaigne, the ostensible Assayas stand-in, admits to a falling out with cinema, which speaks to the director’s slowed work pace, and hints at the exhaustion of being such a visible arthouse figure in the 21st century. How do you approach a foundational cinematic object in an era that has left the artform in permanent flux? It’s a striking quandary, which I’m hoping Assayas follows in the remaining four episodes.

Do you find a lot of Assayas the person in this new Irma Vep, Ryan? Or is this maybe reading into the coincidental parallels too much?

Ryan:I like your parallels between improvisation and artistic back-and-forth; unlike Irma Vep the film, where the crew’s interactions are far too strained to allow for such negotiation, the show delights in the ever-growing web of relationships, where the cast is just as defined by their production roles and traditional problems as they are by particular quirks and attributes.

Of course, no one is more central in the (European) auteurist model than the director, and as such Assayas, by way of Macaigne, poses numerous complications. I keep thinking about Jonathan Rosenbaum’s insistence on Contempt being a more fruitful point of comparison for the film than the more obvious Day for Night, and it makes sense: for one, in the Godard, the director is played not by the director himself but by an icon of cinema’s history (Fritz Lang), and Léaud’s French New Wave associations certainly play much closer to Contempt.

Macaigne, however, while he doesn’t physically resemble Assayas, feels closer to Truffaut’s embodiment of himself in Day for Night, a very thinly-veiled stand-in exhibiting many of the same neuroses as the director himself, but understandably dialed up to eleven. This, of course, is best embodied by the Jade Lee narrative thread, which for me is easily the most affecting aspect of the series so far, not just because of my relationship to the original film and to Assayas and Cheung’s past marriage. Macaigne’s work, already an expected highlight and a higher-profile showcase for one of the greatest active French actors, totally integrates the tremulousness and fear of overt emotion that I get the feeling Assayas is exorcizing, each therapy session or tentative conversation set in a confined space and taking place with a duration only rarely glimpsed elsewhere in the show.

But Macaigne’s presence only becomes more strange the more I think about it. Thanks to the galvanizing interpolation of footage from the film in Episode 3 — Cheung’s nighttime sojourn, Léaud’s lettrist edit, and “regular” stunt double sequences alike — it’s safe to conclude that the previous failed production of Les Vampires that Macaigne/Vidal was involved with was in fact the original film. However, the 43-year-old Macaigne is almost a full quarter of a decade younger than Assayas; he was eighteen years old when the original Irma Vep was released, and Léaud in that film was older than present-day Macaigne by almost ten years. Whether this will factor into the rest of the series remains very much to be seen; Macaigne makes it work, thanks to his perpetual hangdog expression and air of weariness, but it provides a continually productive dissonance for me.

On that same line of thinking, in Macaigne’s dream(?) conversation with Jade Lee — played by Vivian Wu, not Cheung, despite clear close-ups of her in the Episode 3 footage — the two both say that he is remaking Irma Vep, not Les Vampires, and that the series-within-the-series is intended as an expansion of that film. I assume that this full piercing of the veil will assume greater prominence in the second half of the series, but as it stands right now it, and the entire sequence, feels like it emanated from Assayas’ subconsciousness. Its simple confrontation of lost love, of the failures of this marriage taking a spiritual, ambiguous force, is nothing short of sublime, entirely frank and entirely mysterious.

The details that undergird this plot strand — besides the time between the divorce and 2022, which is a little shorter than in real life — line up with a painfully direct correspondence: Lee, like Cheung, is no longer an actress; Macaigne refuses to cast a Chinese actress because it would remind him too much of Lee, which was likely at least a little part of Assayas’ own reasoning; Lee says that the production is not only haunted by the standard spirits, but by their own ghosts. In its strongest moments for me, Irma Vep is able to harness that spectral energy, entering a realm where each person’s past associations, and the whole production’s tie to a seminal film, operate in entirely unknown (yet known) territories.