There’s such a laidback, playful energy in HBO’s new dramedy “Irma Vep” that it’s contagious, the kind of calming escape that we really need in Summer 2022. It’s just fun to hang out in a world with such smart, interesting characters, and to simply ride the waves of creativity under the guidance of a masterful director like Olivier Assayas. A phenomenal director of actresses—just look at Juliette Binoche’s work in “Clouds of Sils Maria” or Kristen Stewart’s in “Personal Shopper” for examples—he draws one of the career-best turns out of Alicia Vikander as an actress trying to figure out her personal and professional lives while filming a television show in France. Adapting his own 1996 film (which starred Maggie Cheung) a quarter century later, Assayas has found a way to breathe life into the themes of the original by expanding on its universe. The TV series doesn’t feel like a remake as much as an updated companion to the original from a filmmaker who has spent the last 25 years since its release honing his craft and observing the very process that he loves so much with all of its personality conflicts, on-set catastrophes, and creative pitfalls. This is a smart, twisting look behind-the-scenes, and a reminder that Assayas is one of the best alive today in the filmmaking business, and apparently TV too.
Vikander plays Mira, an American actress who has become a household name through blockbusters but is seeking a more serious project to prove her acting chops, while also trying to avoid a tabloid scandal and her ex-girlfriend Laurie (Adria Arjona). So she jets off to France to star as the title character in “Irma Vep,” a TV remake of both the French silent film “Les Vampires,” a real film by Louis Feuillade, and a previous project from the director, Rene Vidal (Vincent Macaigne). Yes, “Irma Vep” is incredibly meta, commenting regularly on its own existence, but never in a way that's pretentious. Assayas is playing around with his own art form, shifting how the original film commented on the French film industry to update it to where filmmaking is in the 2020s, including the habit of expanding ideas from feature length to the mini-series format.
The incredibly anxious Vidal struggles from the beginning of the project, unable to get it insured when he admits to taking anti-depressants. He’s constantly fighting against his cast and crew, but mostly seems stricken by insecurity, heightened by the fact that the original film he made led to a doomed relationship which he seems to not yet be over. He struggles to connect to Mira and is often bossed around by the amazing Gottfried (Assayas regular Lars Eidinger), an actor introduced stumbling off the train and telling an assistant director about his recent addiction to crack. There’s a quiet celebrity and gender commentary in “Irma Vep” in that it seems like actors like Gottfried can get away with literally anything while Mira has to watch her every move and Rene is doubted by everyone around him.
The main charm of “Irma Vep” is its razor-sharp dialogue, conversations that flow so smoothly and lightly they never call attention to their wit even as they’re some of the smartest on television. “Irma Vep” is so light on its feet that the meta commentary on filmmaking and the form of the mini-series is merely backdrop to enjoyable conversations between fully-considered characters. Vikander hasn’t had this much fun on screen before, and she gives a loose, genuine performance, feeling like she’s actually responding to what’s in front of her instead of manufacturing a character. Everything here is so lived-in, which is usually impossible when something is this meta. So many writers emphasize the commentary or the theme, but Assayas is so smart that he can weave his ideas through characters that aren't merely like his mouthpieces.
“Irma Vep” often digs into commentary on the industry's state through conversations about whether the series within a series is a “niche product” or if the artisans of the silent era saw art as more than mere content, but it’s also just as delightful in its character beats, whether it’s Mira chatting with a confident new assistant (Devon Ross) or the agent (Carrie Brownstein) who really wants her to come back and make Marvel’s “Silver Surfer.” Both Ross and Brownstein are great. There’s not a weak performance in the series, and Kristen Stewart will reportedly appear in the back half of the eight-episode season.
Making a movie is hard; making a TV mini-series seems almost impossible. How do egos and personalities balance out long enough to create something true? Or is that even possible in an era of algorithms and questions about whether a new show is “binge-worthy”? Assayas has tackled art vs. commerce before, but never with such charm and casual brilliance. Instead of mocking the industry he loves, he’s made a project that highlights the difficulty of a project like “Irma Vep” that almost celebrates its own existence. Yes, making a TV series is hard, but “Irma Vep” is proof that it’s worth the effort.
Four episodes screened for review.