In 1996’s Irma Vep, Hong Kong superstar Maggie Cheung journeys to Paris to play the titular role in a film remake of the seminal 1915 French silent serial Les Vampires. The production rapidly goes awry, as director René Vidal can’t muster the creativity he needs to adequately measure up to the original, and Cheung is increasingly left to her own devices in an unfamiliar place. Playing Cheung is, of course, actual superstar Maggie Cheung, enlisted by real director Olivier Assayas for a sleek meditation on the vagaries of acting, the filmmaking process, and the history and future of French cinema. Now, over 25 years later, Assayas has remade the film as an HBO miniseries, in the process further complicating the original’s self-reflexive themes — as if erecting a mirrored labyrinth around a mirrored sphere.
Once again, a production is seeking to remake Les Vampires, but in the 2020s, of course, television and not film is where such projects come to fruition. Here the superstar is Mira (Alicia Vikander), an American actor best known for superhero blockbusters who’s hoping to gain some artistic credibility. In expanding the story from less than 100 minutes to eight episodes, Assayas (writing and directing every installment) also adds a host of new subplots, like Mira’s antagonism with — or continuing attraction to — her ex-assistant/girlfriend Laurie (Adria Arjona), the coke-addled misadventures of her costar Gottfried (Lars Eidinger), and especially the spiraling mental state of series director René Vidal (Vincent Macaigne). The show-within-the-show’s shooting falls more into disarray with each episode, and at the same time, Mira finds herself seemingly possessed by the spirit of her character (a master thief and iconic femme fatale) as fiction and reality, performance and self blur.
It’s difficult to assess how much appeal Irma Vep will hold outside an extraordinarily narrow audience — mainly a certain crowd of ardent cinephiles. There are countless references and jokes that only they will find funny, much less recognize. Some of the nods to the state of contemporary cinema are obvious, such as Vidal’s repeated insistence that he is not making television but an “eight-part film,” or a casual reference to a Blade Runner remake that’s forgoing most of the sci-fi elements because “they didn’t test well.” Some of the punchiest jokes aren’t so blunt but woven into the aesthetic of the series, or even its framing. The in-universe Les Vampires remake looks, frankly, like shit, with flat lighting, washed-out colors, and uninspired framing … and it’s also quite distinct from the look of the show proper, making for a damning critique of the aesthetics of contemporary television. In a similar riff on changing media, every time a character watches a clip from the original Les Vampires for reference, it’s on their phone.
Many times the overt and subtle references are intertwined. It’s easy to recognize that the Swedish Vikander playing an American is a riff on the now-ubiquitous casting of Europeans in US blockbusters. But then there’s the way she talks, the kind of overly careful vocal-fried enunciation that European actors often adopt when trying to flatten their foreign accents. The thing is, we’ve heard Vikander use a much more convincing American accent in films like Ex Machina. Meaning that even the lead character’s voice is an in-joke here. Going even further, as a young queer woman known for big-budget pictures but now gunning for more serious roles through the European industry, Mira resembles Assayas’s recent collaborator Kristen Stewart (who, for added fun, is reportedly set to make an appearance in this show at some point).
The meta-narrative grows more complex with each episode, less a deepening of a rabbit hole than an excavation of a whole rabbit warren. The series uses much of its new time to interject historical interludes about the 1915-16 creation of Les Vampires, with the contemporary characters playing their analogues on the original set. The events of that shoot and especially the personality of original Irma Vep actor Musidora seem to loom more and more over Mira and co. In the 1996 Irma Vep, Vidal was played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, one of the most visible faces of the French New Wave of the 1950s and ’60s. Just like with Cheung, that casting was heavily weighted with the real-world context of the actor, and Léaud’s character grappling with how to make a meaningful film was directly symbolic of the uncertain future French cinema faced at the time. Macaigne doesn’t carry that kind of heft in his presence, but he doesn’t have to, because this time around Vidal is more of a direct analogue for Assayas himself.
It transpires that Irma Vep is not merely a redo of Irma Vep but also a sequel to it … sort of. This isn’t the kind of remake that presumes the nonexistence of its predecessor; we learn that in the universe of the miniseries, Vidal previously made a film about an abortive attempt at a Les Vampires remake in the ’90s. And that he cast a Hong Kong superstar to lead it. And that he subsequently married her, only for the marriage to fall apart a few years later — just as what happened between Assayas and Cheung after Irma Vep. Vidal’s dialogue with his therapist about why he’s declined to again cast an Asian actress in the lead role feels like Assayas himself commenting on his artistic process. More poignantly, Vidal’s spoken regrets about the relationship feel like the director channeling his real-life feelings directly to the screen. This is one of the most divorced works I’ve ever seen. And the show still can’t help but layer on metatextual in-jokes even during its most sincere moments. When Vidal has an imagined conversation with his ex, Jade, she’s played by Vivian Wu — like Cheung, a Chinese actor who gained Western prominence in the late 198o-90s. (It would be an amazing coup to get Cheung herself in some capacity, but she retired from acting in 2004 and now spends her days doing philanthropy and being cool as fuck.)
Yet while all its cleverness makes it a fun viewing experience for those who can get on its wavelength, Irma Vep still pales in most comparisons to the original film. For all that it adds, nothing can make up for the absence of Cheung. Prior to her retirement she was one of the last figures who could truly be called a movie star in the traditional sense, one of the rare effortlessly magnetic individuals in the world. She who could maintain a consistent intriguing air whether she was playing a biker girl superhero in The Heroic Trio or a lonely, elegant ’60s secretary in In the Mood for Love. Vikander simply does not have the same presence, and that could easily be seen as part of the commentary, but it doesn’t change the fact that Irma Vep the miniseries often substitutes cleverness for the kind of thoughtfulness the film bore in observing Cheung on her meta magical-realist picaresque. Still, given the series’ themes, it’s perhaps appropriate that it isn’t as good as the original.
New episodes of Irma Vep are airing Mondays on HBO and are available to stream on HBO Max, with the series concluding July 25.