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On a cloudy day in late October, at a chic hotel steps from the Champs Elysées, Alicia Vikander sat glued to her phone. The actress was silent, leaning back on an antique chair while her fingers tap-danced across an iPhone screen. She was idle and hard at work, making her stillness pop under the key lights and dollying camera tracking her every facial tic. While the Hotel Raphael ably played itself in this quiet scene, Vikander had more of a dual role: On set was Alicia, the Sweden-born dancer turned Hollywood star, and onscreen she was Mira, a different actress taking a break from blockbusters to shoot an auteur series in France. The echoes would hardly stop there.
Of course, meta is the name of the game in “Irma Vep,” Olivier Assayas’ sly and self-reflective showbiz sendup that finds art imitating life imitating art. Building on the foundations of Assayas’ already meta 1996 feature (itself a French independent film about a Hong Kong icon acting in a French independent film) this limited series pulls at that Mobius strip, stretching it westward to follow an American in Paris and the baggage she brings when shooting a remake of the silent-era serial “Les Vampires.”
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“We didn’t want to do a remake or a sequel,” Vikander tells IndieWire. “[Instead we built on the premise that] the 1996 film was just the first format, the first version of this world and character. Whereas Maggie Cheung used her own name and worked off her own persona, I play another actress – only in this world, that earlier version also exists and my character has to [live up to her image]. So we’ve been very playful, taking new forms and developing the process around them.”
Neither fully a sequel nor wholly a reboot (if somehow both at once), this standalone A24/HBO series gives Assayas’ satirical lens some premium polish and a new focus on our Modern Cinematic Universe – dwelling less on the cultural or linguistic barriers facing a foreign star in France than on their competing economic and artistic incentives. Does the ‘one-for-them, one-for-me’ model still work when opportunities grow narrower and spandex reigns supreme?
“This feels different than the usual behind-the-scenes story,” says Vikander, who also executive produced the series. “It feels very real and even more unglamorous — and that’s what makes it fun. I’ve done blockbusters, I watch and appreciate them, but I also search for other types of experiences and other types of art. That’s what [my character] Mira is going through.”
Which returns us to that scene in question. Inside the cramped Parisian hotel room, Assayas shot take after take, pulling his camera ever closer to an actress engaged in a fiery text-message dispute (“You could do a whole film of only texting,” Vikander joked once they cleared the last one. To which the filmmaker replied, “I already did!”). Doing away with screen trickery, Vikander typed out her missives each time, exchanging scripted lines with a prop master crouched just out of sight.
In the finished cut, the actress’ bemused agent Zelda (Carrie Brownstein) holds the other line, imploring her client to drop this troubled French production for another superhero slam dunk. “Here’s the twist,” Zelda boasts of the project she’s trying to sell. “The Silver Surfer dies and the girlfriend takes over. This is exactly what people want right now!”
That those words might echo an upcoming blockbuster with a strikingly similar premise and a release date within weeks of the series’ broadcast is no happy accident for the filmmaker, who likens this series to a Polaroid. “To capture a moment you have to be completely in sync with it,” Assayas explains. “I don’t know if I belong to this new world, but I thought it would be fascinating to use this industry transformation to fuel a series. You very seldom have the opportunity to present that in real time.”
If the filmmaker has spent the better part of four decades capturing moments of change in a world in flux, this particular real-time effort proved more challenging than most. “The schedule was tough, because I had to write, direct, prepare, post-produce and promote without having time to breathe,” says Assayas. “It has been a marathon I’ve run as if it were a sprint. It’s been a rush, which obviously gave the series some of its energy.”
That energy informs the eight episodes in surprising ways. For one thing, this “Irma Vep” is the filmmaker’s broadest and funniest project to date, mixing the in-jokes of Robert Altman’s “The Player” with the breezy farce of French series “Call My Agent!, while benefiting from winning performances from Assayas vets Nora Hamzawi, Vincent Macaigne ( both of “Non-Fiction”), and Lars Eidinger (“Personal Shopper”), all playing larger-than-life members of the cast and crew. “For once in my life I had the idea for a comedy, and I’m trying to make the best of it,” says the director. “[But the original] film also had a comedic side, so I was just continuing something embedded from the start.”
“It’s a comedy that’s also a ghost story,” he continues. “It’s about memory and time, about modern society and modern filmmaking. There are several serious, reflective elements in the story, and you need to strike a lighter tone to incorporate them. It’s simpler that way, and it helps you get your ideas across.”
Of those ghosts haunting the project, none looms larger than that of Maggie Cheung. After all, the Hong Kong star made her English language debut in Assayas’ 1996 film, married the director two years later, and disappeared from the public stage after starring in his 2004 film “Clean.” And though he set out to make his loopiest project to date, Assayas ended up with his most confessional one as well.
“I’ve always tried to separate my life from my filmmaking, but in this case I could not,” he begins. “I didn’t realize as much when I committed to the series, but I couldn’t escape my own intimate and personal echoes. Only when I started writing did I realize this would have to lead to Maggie in one way or another. Maggie would have to be part of this – the project would have to be haunted by her absence.”
“I’m plain and honest about a lot of things,” says Assayas. “Maggie has disappeared from my life and she’s vanished from cinema… [And] inside the very idea of returning to “Irma Vep” is to revive those memories. Instead of doing a remake or reboot or whatever, I’m trying to deal with memory, because the original film deeply changed my life, and it would feel like cheating if I did not also mention the personal and even intimate part of it.”
For her part, Vikander also felt the weight of influence, haunted by the ghosts of actresses who had slipped into that black cat suit before her. That meant Cheung of course, but also the silent star Musidora, who originated the role of Irma Vep in the 1915 serial “Les Vampires.” Both would work their way into Vikander’s performance, especially as the series lead would prowl the rooftops of Paris, or shoot the project’s series-within-a-series with ornate period details.
“I picked up on the grace of the old films, and needed to find that same grace and power stepping into a silk velvet suit,” says Vikander. “Because we travel through time to understand what that character meant.”
Shooting detailed recreations of capers and set pieces from the century old serial gave the show’s star a Russian nesting doll of character choices. Was the contemporary actress Mira playing the French vamp Musidora playing the character of Irma Vep? And where was Vikander’s point of entry into all that?
“There are so many layers, because that is what my own character goes through,” says the actress. “I wouldn’t consider myself a kind of method actor who needs to go all-in and then leave it, but that is a theme here. [My character] believes in the magic of cinema, and lets herself transform, moving into that universe.”
Even when the lights go dark and the cameras turn off, those traces can sometimes linger. Back on set, Assayas called a wrap on Mira’s frustrated text-message exchange. Time was of the essence, the crew was already behind schedule and there were plenty more shots to set up. Vikander handed over her prop phone and pulled out her personal one. She was in between set-ups and needed nearby, so with no more comfortable option, she simply plopped right back down on the same antique chair, sat in a similar position and pulled out her phone to kill time. Life imitating art imitating life. Very meta. Very “Irma Vep.”
“Irma Vep” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on HBO.
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