The first question most interviewers put to Olivier Assayas in Cannes last month was, Why? What motivated him to turn Irma Vep, his 1996 feature about a chaotic attempt to remake Louis Feuillade’s 1915 serial Les Vampires, into a new, eight-episode series? “Irma Vep is not a movie,” he told Vulture’s Rachel Handler. “Irma Vep is a concept. You can adapt it to any kind of film culture. When I did it in the ’90s, cinema was in turmoil for many different reasons. I think now it’s in turmoil for completely new and different reasons. It means I had a completely different engine and could tell a completely different story based on something I already visited in another time.”
In the feature, Assayas depicted a moribund French film industry seeking to reconnect with its inventive origins while simultaneously reinvigorating itself in a globalized era by bringing in a major star, Maggie Cheung, from Hong Kong, whose cinema was all the rage in the 1990s. In 2022, Assayas is “keenly aware that these days, streaming, episodic content has at once displaced and fused with traditional feature filmmaking,” observes Adam Nayman at the Ringer. “Making his own entry into the nebulous, omnipresent genre known as Peak TV, Assayas deconstructs the terrain—and its implications—with light-fingered finesse.”
Further, “there is the relationship to my own work,” he tells Elizabeth Vincentelli in the New York Times, “how it ages, how I interact with myself a quarter of a century apart, how the events surrounding the film—which, to be transparent, is my marriage to Maggie Cheung—is also something that echoes very profoundly and essentially with the goings-on in the series. And how also modern cinema has a dialogue with silent film.”
Assayas’s new Irma Vep is Alicia Vikander, who plays Mira, a star of comic book blockbusters who’s looking for a meatier character to bite into. “Across scenes where the director and his new muse discuss their ambitions and inspirations, it’s very easy to see Assayas drawing from the well of personal experience, namely his collaborations with Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria and Personal Shopper,” writes Will Ashton at Slant. The director tells Gregory Ellwood at the Playlist that “if I wanted to deal honestly with Irma Vep and how that movie changed my life, it had to include very intimate, personal elements.”
Many see traces of Assayas in René Vidal, the director of the Les Vampires remake played in the feature by Jean-Pierre Léaud and in the series by Vincent Macaigne, who cranks up the character’s neuroses. “I don’t scream at people, you know,” Assayas tells Vincentelli. “I don’t attack my actors.” Writing for Screen,Jonathan Romney notes that Vidal’s set gets “wilder with the arrival of crack-addicted German costar Gottfried, drolly played by Lars Eidinger as a satanic combination of the three Ks: Klaus Kinski, Udo Kier, and Keith Richards. Throw in loftily willful costume designer Zoë (Jeanne Balibar) and posturing lead male Edmond (a deliciously up-himself Vincent Lacoste), and it becomes clear that for all her star glamor, Mira is actually the least diva-like person on set.”
Romney points out that Assayas has not “aimed for the addictive speediness of the Netflix era, rather choosing to offer extended sections focusing on individual characters, as opposed to building up a complex, rapidly progressing narrative . . . Vikander’s playful, engagingly laidback performance forms a strong unifying thread, while Macaigne and Lacoste are altogether priceless.”
For news and items of interest throughout the day, every day, follow @CriterionDaily.