Alicia Vikander stars as Mira - a career hot actor who has just starred in several big Hollywood features, notably Doomsday, which is supposedly a big superhero movie with slightly loftier than usual artistic ambition. But it’s still just a superhero film in her eyes. She’s feeling creatively unfulfilled, so agrees to star in a European TV production Irma Vep.
The fictional show within a show Irma Vep is a remake of the real-life French silent film classic movie Les Vampires. Irma Vep is also an anagram for the word Vampire.
The new actual HBO TV show Irma Vep, is in itself a remake of a 1996 film (of the same name) from Oliver Assayas. Assayas is back here for the remake of his movie, writing and directing every episode. He has taken a highly meta approach and made his TV series about the artistically limiting process of making a sequel. You see, all this vampire business is a metaphor for Assayas feasting on his own work.
Throughout the show he weaves in footage of Les Vampires as we see production of the new TV series within the TV show we are watching. That's not confusing to follow, is it?
And yes, that’s all really meta. But that meta discussion about sequels and movie making isn’t the only thing that the show has going for it. This really is the very earthy, grounded(ish) story about a company of performers and craftspeople who are making a TV show.
Alicia Vikander as Mira is the lead of both this show and the titular Irma Vep of the show within the show. As Mira, I have never seen an actor on screen look so effortless. Vikander feels so natural and real in the part.
Mira is at the center of this story about art vs commerce - she's in Europe to work on this show as it is more artistically interesting than she had been doing. But there is an element of satire at play here as she’s also still an actor expecting the niceties of a large scale US movie production - notably a hotel room worthy of her stature. This isn’t an independent film, she rations to her agent over the phone. The US agent, incidentally, played by Carrie Brownstein who folks will know from Portlandia and being a third of Sleater-Kinney.
But that's just part of what Mira is up to in the show. We also see that Mira is dealing with the emotional fallout of her ex-girlfriend/ex personal assistant having just gotten married to the director of the last film she was on. Feeling wounded by it all, she reaches out to her ex-boyfriend who is filming a movie at the time nearby.
And while Mira is the main focus of the show, she isn’t the only character we’re following. There’s the film director Rene who has some mental health issues which limit his tolerance for other people: not great for a guy directing a TV show. He’s doing okay on some heavy duty medication, but now the insurance people won’t bond the show, putting the whole production at risk. There’s the make-up artist who works at her own schedule and not of the film. There’s the actor who is insistent that he can’t find his motivation and that it is integral that they establish the passion between his character and his partner - it means he wants a sex scene, but how true are his motivations there when the actor playing his partner is his ex-girlfriend who wants little to do with him.
There's a lot going on in this show.
Throughout the series, there are also all manner of small asides and interstitials that build up the world of the show. Some scenes with the main characters are just world building asides, while there are other moments which are there to build up the external world of tradespeople working on the show - there’s a notable moment in the second or third episode where in-between shots there’s a reverent conversation about the craft services table on the Emily in Paris Netflix production.
Every episode opens with its incredible opening title sequence which really stands apart in a landscape of tired and rote opening titles and ends with a James Bond style title card telling us what the next adventure will be called. It’s highly silly as this is a human drama show without any adventurous stakes beyond the high stakes of the human heart and/or ego, but it gives the show a cheeky little adrenaline shot at the end of every chapter.
Irma Vep is enchanting. It is a loving, thoughtful show which captured my attention from start to finish. The show looks incredible with the show taking full-advantage of the French location and then there’s the very watchable cast of characters who all look and feel so authentic.
This is a mature, adult drama series that is part hang-out show, part mood piece, and part metatextual art-wank with Oliver Assayas working through his feelings about remaking his own movie. And all of it blends together an absolute treat.
You will adore Irma Vep. It is one of the finest of the year.
Irma Vep is screening weekly on HBO, HBO Max, and in Australia on Binge.