IIf you’ve been paying attention to the media coverage of HBO’s trending new series Irma Vepyou’ve no doubt come across references to its alleged “meta” qualities.
This designation is based on the fact that the eight-episode limited series by French filmmaker Olivier Assayas is a remake of his 1996 feature film, also titled Irma Vepand that both iterations of the project – the current series and the past feature – center on a fictional French filmmaker who focused on revamping Louis Feuillade’s silent film series The vampires, released in 1915 and 1916, which focused on a coterie of criminals, the Vampires. Thus, one could say that Assayas was holding up a mirror to a film from the 1990s which was holding up a mirror to a series from the 1910s.
I understood? Well, of course you do. Based on the first three episodes of the series, we’re not talking about a work as imaginatively self-referential as, say, an MC Escher work of art or even David Lynch’s feverish 2001 fantasy about modern Hollywood, Mulholland Drive. Maybe the balance of Irma Vep will turn out to be pleasantly serpentine, rather than painfully boring, but if this is meant to be cutting edge meta, well, so is it Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. It’s just another remake, this one stretching from feature to series length without any rationale other than the fact that arty series are popular these days and arty movies aren’t.
In fact, blockbusters based on Hollywood comics – things like the Spider Man movies – play a big role in the tense satire of Assayas in the new Irma Vep: Replacing the much more mysterious Maggie Cheung, who had the lead role in Assayas’ previous film, Swedish actress Alicia Vikander plays Mira, a leading lady of the United States whose latest film, a comic book adaptation titled judgment Day, made something like a million dollars. We can see how silly it is judgment Day it’s when, at the start of the first episode, Mira, played by Vikander, a brunette so cool and empowered that even Alfred Hitchcock could love her, dons a white wig and a space suit to pose with some futuristic guns for a magazine of photoshoot mode to promote the film. O tempora, o morals!
Wishing to broaden her artistic horizons, Mira signed up to play the role of Irma Vep, a femme fatale dressed in a tight catsuit and leader of the Vampires gang, in René Vidal’s (Vincent Macaigne) new version of The vampires (which, pretentious moron that he is, he insists is not a series but “a film, admittedly a bit long, divided into eight pieces” – a nice line).
Other than as an excuse for Mira to book a trip to Paris, the project’s prospects seem dubious. Mira’s agent Zelda (Carrie Brownstein) looks positively giddy when it appears funding for the remake will fail and thus allow Mira to star as a silver surfer in a “super movie.” -feminist hero and led by a woman”. .” But Mira takes a stand for art. “Blockbusters let you make the movies you want,” mutters Mira’s personal assistant Regina (Devon Ross, who, with her commentary on the sociopolitical meanings of zombie movies and her well-worn copy of a review book film by French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, behaves like a rejection of a Jim Jarmusch film).
The problem with this setup isn’t that it’s fake – plenty of movie stars want to be seen as serious actors, including, presumably, Vikander, whose credits include both grave robber and Jason Bourne as well as the most serious Ex-Machina and The light between the oceans – but that everything is a bit lame.
Irma Vep arrives 30 years after Robert Altman’s classic 1992 satire The player, featuring Tim Robbins in a padded shirt in a Hollywood studio whose sins include greed, idiocy and even murder. But Altman’s hard-earned cynicism, the result of a maverick career in which he regularly offended producers and executives, gave his film the wink the series has so far lacked. ‘Assayas. Seen today, the references in The player may be dated, but his venom seems much fresher than by Irma Vep predictable portrayal of the “deep state” of contemporary cinema, encompassing personal assistants, website journalists and former lovers, all of whom conform to the clichés.
Are we supposed to be shocked when Mira parties one night and shows up a little less laser-sharp the next morning? Are we supposed to cry over the state of the art when Rene shows Mira footage from the silent series Pauline’s Perils on a phone – a pioneering cinematic achievement reduced to a few pixels on a screen? Well, we’re not, and we won’t.
Maybe Assayas wasn’t even just there to launch contemporary cinema. In fact, with his moody, poetic digressions, he almost surely had other things on his mind as well. But what? Selections presented from The vampires are terribly pretty, and his stagings of the same scenes for René’s film are executed with great care. But it’s not day to nightthe panegyric of the cinema of François Truffaut in 1973. Irma Vep skips the thrill of conjuring up an invented world and spends much of its time on boredom, anxiety and boredom associated with the process and the industry that supports it.
At the end, Irma Vep offers superficial satisfactions: the sight of charming Vikander wading around in her catsuit or the ramblings of the strewn, antidepressant-stuffed director Rene, who gives direction while delicately clutching a bunch of grapes. But when the value of a movie or show depends on its “meta,” it feels like such a special pleading. It amounts to an intellectual argument for liking something that, in honest or visceral terms, fails to entertain or engage. Perhaps Assayas’ goal was to create a series as monotonous to contemporary eyes as the original. The vampires probably would be. Irma Vep could be read as a reflection on, as Orson Welles once described Michelangelo Antonioni’s forte, “boredom as an artistic subject”, using this subject as a medium. There is a “meta” idea for you.
Pierre Tonguette is a Washington Examiner contributing writer to the magazine.