Not the least of French directors have made films about the film industry itself, with a fascination bordering on obsession with Hitchcock and American genre films. Be it Jean-Luc Godard (le mepris1963), Francois Truffaut (la nuit americaine, 1973), Jean-Pierre Melville (Bob le flambeur, 1956) and many others. In this century, Olivier Assayas is the heir to this tradition. He made in 1996 with Irma Vepi a comedy about a French film crew remaking the classic French film series Les Vampires by Louis Feuillades (1915-1916). The lead role was played by Hong Kong cinema star Maggie Cheung, who played a version of herself. After shooting the film, she married the director. And in 2014 Assayas . made Clouds of Sils Mariaa powerful film about the life of the personal assistant (Kristen Stewart) of a great French movie star (Juliette Binoche).
And now there’s the eight part series Irma Vepi, where all these lines come together in a very entertaining story about the life of a filmmaker and a major international movie star in the times of streaming services. ‘Don’t call it a series’ is the mantra of the series director Irma Vepia great neurotic role by Vincent Macaigne as René Vidal, a sort of alter ego of Assayas and a portrait full of self-mockery, including his habit of falling in love with his female protagonists.
The Maggie Cheung role here is played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, international superstar who is constantly torn by commercial offers and the need to make movies that really matter. Vikander, who in addition to her art house work was also the designated new Lara Croft, will also know a thing or two about that. She plays Mira Harberg, who abandoned the biggest movie star on the planet when she had an affair with her assistant, who then abandoned her again.
All the happenings in front of and behind the camera are served up with great pleasure and fatness, including vain older actors and Lars Eidinger as the impossible German actor Gottfried, who has clearly made a study of Klaus Kinski to master the right manic temperament. For people who like to go to the French series Dix pour cent (Call my agent!), there is much to enjoy here.
Meanwhile, we see fragments from the original film serial (dating from the 1920s), new scenes with Vikander in her Irma Vep catsuit, and to set even more astray in this labyrinth: fragments from the Irma Vepimovie from 1996. But Irma Vepi, the series, is much more a pleasing ode to the organized chaos of a film set than an intellectual puzzle about the route French cinema has taken from silent film to streaming series. And that film set is just like the rest of the world, with heated discussions about decency (you have to see it in its time, the director shouts in vain) versus the absolute freedom of the artist. You get the impression that Assayas has been through it all. And that he still thinks a film set is the most beautiful place imaginable.
An eight-part series based on the movie Irma Vepi (1996) by Oliver Assayas.
With Alicia Vikander, Vincent Macaigne, Devon Ross.
To be seen on HBO Max.