Assayas remakes his film ‘Irma Vep’ as series
Auteur calls show proof multinational works can be done
French filmmaker Oliver Assayas’ “Irma Vep,” a streaming series adaptation of his own movie adaptation of a silent serial, has become a stealthy summer treat. Its finale recently premiered on HBO and HBO Max.
By turns playful, hypnotic, laceratingly funny and deeply vulnerable, the series goes to places Assayas could not in a feature film, exploring unexpected corners of the characters’ lives and personalities. As Assayas described the show, “It’s a serious comedy about cinema and the people who make it.”
In films such as “Demonlover,” “Summer Hours,” “Clouds of Sils Maria,” “Personal Shopper” and “Non-Fiction,” Assayas has long made nimble movies that meditate on the anxieties and issues of modern life, grappling with how technology and globalization impact people’s everyday interactions and relationships.
Produced by A24, the series “Irma Vep” is an adaptation of Assayas’ 1996 film of the same name. In the movie, Hong Kong superstar Maggie Cheung played herself as a famous actor who has come to
Paris to be in an independent adaptation of Louis Feuillade’s 1915 serial “Les Vampires.”
In the HBO series, international film star
Mira Harberg (played by international film star Alicia Vikander) shoots a streaming adaptation of “Les Vampires” in France against the advice of her American agent, Zelda (Carrie Brownstein). As she navigates the production and its emotionally
fragile director Rene Vidal (Vincent Macaigne) — who is haunted by memories of his former star and ex-wife Jade Lee (Vivian Wu) — Mira also deals with the competing needs of a volatile German actor Gottfried (Lars Eidinger), a flirty costume designer Zoe (Jeanne Balibar) and her own assistant Regina (Devon Ross).
Then there is her former assistant and ex-lover Laurie (Adria Arjona), who is in Paris with her new husband, Herman (Byron Bowers), a director who recently made a blockbuster starring Mira. It all collides on set and in luxury hotels as Mira begins to question what she wants from her life and career.
This interview with Assayas has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: The new series feels reminiscent of your original movie but also like something totally new. Was that a challenge as far as what you wanted the tone to be? A:
The original one was done in such crazy circumstances, and it was basically with no money … It’s my first film that gave me some kind of international recognition. But basically, it’s still a small indie French film shot in four weeks. I knew that if I got myself into the process of making the series, working with HBO, A24 on an 8-hour canvas, whatever I do is going to be very different. Here I am, in many ways, much closer to Feuillade’s serial, in the sense that it has a similar structure by episodes, and also we are in a completely different world. It has nothing to do with the world I lived in when I was making “Irma Vep.” We are in a moment of very deep transformation of whatever we call cinema, in terms
of aesthetics, in terms of financing, in terms of viewing. “Irma Vep,” the original one and same with this one, has one foot in the past and one foot in the present.
Q: In Alicia’s performance in the series “Irma Vep,” it often seems that she’s playing Kristen Stewart, who you directed in “Clouds of Sils Maria” and “Personal Shopper.” Was that something that you and Alicia spoke about? A:
I think everything that had to do with the issues of being a famous actress in Hollywood today is very clearly understood by Alicia without having to refer to Kristen. But obviously when I’m writing a story involving a movie star, I don’t know that many movie stars — it’s not the world I live in, I don’t go to Hollywood parties or whatever. I live a very private life in Paris, and that’s pretty much it. But there is one
movie star I know, I love, I admire, and that’s Kristen. So when I’m writing a character who happens to be a movie star, my reference point could be, can be, happens to be, sometimes Kristen, of course.
Q: Kicking off with the movie “Irma Vep,” so much of your work since has been about internationalization, technology, the way we are all sort of connected now. And does this series feel like a summation on those themes? A:
I think I’m correct. I think that filmmaking is changing. I think that globalization of cinema is an important factor, and I’ve been kind of surfing on it. And this series is ultimately where it was all leading to in a way because when I’ve made movies that dealt with those themes, they were always European financed, and they were done from a completely European perspective. The new
“Irma Vep” is a hybrid, it’s an American-French series or a French-American series, half and half, maybe a little bit more American than French in many ways. And with a lead actress who happens to be Swedish, and great French actors, in an American series. All of a sudden those things mix in an exciting way. And in a more satisfying way for me than when I was only toying with it. What I am saying is that the series is kind of living proof that it can be done. You can make multinational films, and they can be a really exciting source of inspiration, and it can get financed. It’s a format where you mix languages, and you mix cultures. Who wants that? Basically everybody. Everyone wants that because that’s how people live nowadays. That’s where the culture is.
Q: If there is a season two, will you be you adapting a different one of your movies, or will it be the further adventures of Mira Harberg on another movie shoot? A:
Honestly, I don’t think I would direct season two. If HBO asks me, which has not happened (as of this interview), I think I would try to imagine something completely different and certainly not explore my own work. Either it could be based on “Judex” and directed by people I love like Claire Denis or Arnaud Desplechin or whoever if they’re interested. But initially, what I imagined when I was writing the pilot and the bible for the series, actually, what I had in the back of my mind as a sequel would be the shoot of “Barbarella” by Roger Vadim in 1960s Cinecitta. I thought there was a lot of comic potential. I think it could be funnier than Rene Vidal shooting “Les Vampires.”