Credit: HBO
by Patrick Preziosi by Ryan Swen Feature Articles Featured Film

Irma Vep — Olivier Assayas: A Dialogue on Episode 8

August 10, 2022

Patrick: So we’ve made it to the finale, Ryan. In our last correspondence I wrote of Assayas’ proclivity for compartmentalization, boxing different characters away once they’d served their temporary purpose. Of course, such a metaphor also implies an “unboxing,” so to speak; Assayas may have abruptly stemmed what’d otherwise been a flowing arc, but he’ll later embroider these victims of the script back in, while also swapping others out. Eamonn was my chosen example our last go round, but now he’s back, and among other things, the arbiter of the much speculated Kristen Stewart cameo. Elsewhere, Laurie and Herman have evaporated. It’s like a La Ronde of contemporary artmaking/content creation.

I was prepared to look for the different avenues Assayas may’ve taken to disrupt the preconceived notions of a television finale, but given the series’ hitherto restlessness, the most subversive decision is perhaps its genuine commitment to closure in a show that could be so contrastingly withholding. The final look on Fala Chen’s face amidst the vampires’ bacchanal; Mira’s new career prospects; the DreamScape Perfume executives surrendering themselves to Mira’s whims.

Most moving, however, may be the transposition of Summer Hours’ the-kids-are-alright coda, peppered across this episode, mostly embodied by Regina and the new actress playing Philippe Guérande’s wife. Summer Hours is one of my least favorite Assayas films, though it’s a plangent conceit nevertheless — simply put, the emotional tenor is more earned within this milieu that’s so unimpeachably inextricable from Assayas’ life these past few decades (as opposed to an antiquarian art collection or the proliferation of Nike factories.) This actress calls Les Vampires “slow and black and white,” which is obviously meant as a dig, but she also offers herself wholeheartedly to Regina’s coming project, a working relationship stoked over a chance meeting with cigarettes and coffee. Assayas isn’t chasing any sort of younger film-form beyond this participation in television, and thus, he’s struck this perfect balance between an aesthetic reaffirmation of his own established strengths while also letting the idea of the new creep in, without ever putting too much of an authorial stamp on it.

How did you respond to these newfound dynamics, Ryan? Were you as heartened as I was?

Ryan: I definitely found this very unexpected development heartening, in large part because it brought to the fore one of the series’ most plausible yet potent qualities: the ensemble work, where actors other than Vikander and Macaigne can be relied upon to find linkages and interactions totally separate from the overt mysticism of Irma Vep. If Assayas were to do a Season 2, I’d be equally interested in him just following these students at the drama school as him chronicling the making of Judex, which he comes close to signaling.

I definitely found this final episode subversive, both in that conclusory manner you mentioned and in the strange, lingering bereftness that surrounds both René and Mira’s ultimate fates. After the pyrotechnics of the final few scenes of episode seven, I was prepared for something truly spectacular and radical. That doesn’t come to pass, with the exception of Fala Chen’s fantastic final two scenes and the choreographing of a visceral dance; what happens instead is oddly mundane, with the filming of Irma Vep’s death mostly going as planned and the cast and crew — including Zoe; it was sad seeing Jeanne Balibar rejected once again — going their separate ways.

That leaves our two main characters, with René as the forlorn desirer and Mira as the spectral figure. Mira does make a choice not to go through with the DreamScape promotion, but everything else is left bare, with no inkling as to where exactly she’s gone, whether the film perhaps directed, perhaps not by Christopher Nolan will actually get made. Aside from Mira-as-Irma Vep appearing one more time, the epilogue’s focus is entirely on René: his final conversation with his therapist and a long-belated phone call with his wife. The viewer certainly gets the mixed feeling at the end of a film shoot: a slow exhale, a sudden void where a mountain of anxieties once existed.

What I’m less sure of is what Assayas intends besides this sensation: is René talking as much to Irma Vep as he is his wife? Has René come back from the unknown that the movies thrust him into? What do you think Patrick?

Patrick: I think it’s important to note that René introduced himself to Mira with a belabored air of contemptuous resignation, deprecating both himself and the cinema — though this being Macgaine, his René ably telegraphs a certain, nervous posturing, a wavering commitment to the artistic sanctimoniousness that’s expected of a director of his stature (“It’s René Vidal!” innumerable characters espouse throughout.) It’s possible that the haunted unknown of filmmaking that he references so much in the latter half of the series had revealed itself to him, affirmed its presence, impervious to the sort of exorcism of Jade Lee’s spirit he’d subconsciously striven for.

Assayas has confronted issues of legacy before, but in his signature hermetic fashion, so that something like Clouds of Sils Maria, as strikingly modern as it is, is also like a snow globe of actorly competitiveness, down to the Majola Snake of the title. Irma Vep still functions with that observational distancing, as furnished by a fictional world that so relentlessly mirrors our own, but René Vidal is, simply, such an unabashed Assayas proxy. The unknown is still coursing through his filmic worlds, but he’s optimistic of newly forged avenues he can take to harness it. When he has his walk-off meltdown, he holes up editing, laying Sonic Youth’s “Mildred Pierce” (the most cacophonous cut off Goo, a far cry from the still noisy but also shimmering “Tunic (Song for Karen)” that plays in the original Irma Vep), as if returning to the safest, most familiar pocket of his cinema. Considering his mysteriously symbiotic, possibly telepathic relationship with Mira, it seems that the unknown is something originating between two individuals, rather than just throwing a mismatched Sonic Youth song on the soundtrack.

Is it enough to say that Irma Vep is an admission of its creator’s age? I’d say so: Assayas has always projected a certain youthfulness, a poppy filmmaking that’s slashed by streaks of iconoclasm. His smartphone-savvy, Kristen Stewart-starring ghost movie came after Summer Hours, an ostensibly “old man film.” This is still kinetic, the roving cinematography of Lenoir and Le Saux still in fine form, but the closing emphasis on family, as ambiguous as it is, has perhaps announced something new for Assayas, even if it’s just a slowed output.

Do you find this rendition of Irma Vep to be wary of its director’s age, Ryan?

Ryan: Trying to declare when a director has entered their late period is, of course, a fool’s errand, as prone to the shifting vagaries of an artist’s interest as you suggested with the Stewart films following Summer Hours. But discounting the compromised Wasp Network, I do find a compelling thread that once again connects Irma Vep the series and Non-Fiction: the principal focus rests upon the slightly more experienced participants in the debate, if not wiser. While in, say, Clouds of Sils Maria, Stewart was able to convincingly argue on equal footing with Binoche, both René and Mira — despite the latter’s evident ascendant status — are cast as the old guard, the entrenched mythic figures, though the director becomes personified while the actor becomes all the more mysterious.

Keeping this in mind, I’m latching on to your particular phrasing, characterizing the work as wary instead of Assayas himself, a statement I’m heavily inclined to agree with. There’s, of course, the spectral resonances to that and the spirit of Irma Vep the character/icon floating through, but it’s just as much entrenched in a certain picture of contentment that the series ultimately proposes: this, like Non-Fiction, ends on a note of familial accord, unlike Stewart’s films which end with no shortage of ambiguity (to say nothing of the bracing coda of, say, Cold Water). And while Irma Vep is now gone, with no inkling as to whether there will be a continuation after its namesake is left gazing over the Seine, the decision to not depict a reunion on screen still carries a little bit of mystery amid the mundanity.

If René genuinely possesses a more-or-less comfortable, settled position after the end of this shoot, it’s likely much more in the shifting of priorities than in the true banishment of cinema. That’s what makes the final introduction of these young filmmakers so crucial: whether this is film or television, art or content, personal or commercial isn’t for the predecessors or even the makers to properly judge. If all is as it appears, René feels free to pass the torch, and so can Assayas: no matter their vessels, the phantoms of the movies will never die.