Tuesday, March 28

Criticism of the HBO series: Irma Vep, you are in hell

Still from the series ‘Irma Vep’

Fun, playful and perverse. The adaptation starring Alicia Vikander and directed by Oliver Assayas is one of the series of the year

Andrea Moran

If the original 1996 film ‘Irma Vep’ lasted 96 minutes, the television adaptation that has now been made by the director himself, Olivier Assayas, exceeds 400. Was it necessary, did it add something different, is this return to the myth worth it? Absolutely yes. We didn’t know it but we needed ‘Irma Vep’ and so did Assayas: the eight episodes outline a journey of reconciliation with the act of telling stories through images. It is an exorcization of their ghosts turned into spirits. Also an ode to the performers, to the alchemy that surrounds cinema (it can still do so) and to the complicity and understanding that grows between two artists, specifically, between an actress and her director.

Let’s remember that it all starts when Mira Harberg (Alicia Vikander), immersed in the promotion of a superhero movie, lands in Paris to act in this low-budget and “shabby” project, as one of the characters says. She will put herself under the orders of René Vidal -Assayas’s alter ego- and will play the villain Irma Vep in the adaptation of ‘Les Vampires’, a series made in 1915 by Louis Feuillade and starring Musidora at the time.

This framework could remain a mere historical reference, but Assayas introduces it in a metafictional game and adds layer after layer: the main plot will be the recording in our present -and everything that surrounds it: ex-lovers, agents, co-stars and producers-, but we also see the scenes shot, clips from the original series, the ‘making of’ recreated from that first shoot at the beginning of the century and the staged memories of Musidora herself.

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Alicia Vikander in a scene from the series

Screens, genres and tones

The result is a lively narrative framework, full of digital textures and colors, falsely analog, scratched like old celluloid or seen through YouTube. It is true that Assayas prioritizes an artisanal and outmoded vision, suffice it to say that he throws himself into an American night to recreate night scenes and there are hardly any special effects. But it is neither nostalgic nor old: the images flow through mobile screens, ipads, the director’s combo or projectors. ‘Irma Vep’, from 2022, is very aware of the era to which she belongs. Contemporary debates arise that had not even happened in the 1996 film: cultural appropriation, political correctness or the role of entertainment are some of them.

That fluid condition of the material that we mentioned is also present in the personality of the protagonist. We see Mira as a woman, also dressed as a man, she kisses classmates and sleeps with former boyfriends. Neither she herself catalogs her sexuality nor her desire. She is an actress, but sometimes she seems more like a medium for her character; she can be seductive but also submissive, trusting and at the same time vulnerable.

'Irma Vep' Review: Oliver Assayas Suits Himself (Very Well)

The hybridization of aesthetics and genres also affects the tone, which changes with a pleasant ease. In those 400 minutes there is room for comedy, romance and the fantastic. In one scene we can laugh at the whiny and eccentric actors, but in the next we take pity on them seeing them injured and bruised. Assayas also laughs at himself, sitting director René in the psychiatrist’s office, a prisoner of his obsessions and homicidal impulses, and brings out the most romantic side of him -sometimes sad, melancholy- to talk about endless breakups , of the past that torments.

The French director does not hesitate to play the autobiographical oversight and assign René a ghost that could well be his own and that has a name and surname: Maggie Cheung, the actress who brought the character of Irma Vep to life in 1996 and his former partner. She does not appear -let’s imagine the hubbub- but her spirit is invoked, she makes an appearance with another face and a pseudonym. It is the power of fiction that ends up convincing us that it could happen, that continents can be traversed in seconds, that even walls can be traversed. The mystical ends up surrounding a series with which Oliver Assayas bets on faith in cinema, on the energy that is generated when a group of people meet to tell a story that is bigger than themselves. A playful, magical and perverse. I mean, adult.

The series is complete on HBO Max.


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