Mini-Series 'Irma Vep' Is A Chic, Confusing Confection
This reimagining of Olivier Assayas’ 1996 film of the same name begins as a witty, Call My Agent!-esque showbiz satire, then goes appealingly meta as it takes on the state of modern cinema
Fans of Wordle or Countdown might enjoy American-French miniseries Irma Vep because it’s full of hidden anagrams.
The title is an anagram of “vampire”. Its heroine’s name is Mira, itself an anagram of “Irma”. All that’s missing is a numbers round, a conundrum and some painful Richard Whiteley puns. One from the top and five from anywhere else, s’il vous plaît, Carol.
This playful eight-parter from HBO is indeed a puzzle but an addictively absorbing one. Adapted by director Olivier Assayas from his own 1996 film, it’s a postmodern comedy-drama with more twists than a braided baguette.
Oscar-winning Swedish actress Alicia Vikander is mesmerising as Mira Harberg, a Hollywood star disillusioned by both the superhero blockbusters that made her name and tabloid coverage of her recent relationship split.
She jumps at the chance to escape Tinseltown and decamp to Paris to star as black catsuit-clad criminal Irma Vep in a reboot of Les Vampires, Louis Feuillade’s 1916 silent serial about a gang of thieves.
The remake’s neurotic director, René Vidal (scene-stealer Vincent Macaigne), is a tantrum-prone misanthrope who, we slowly learn, is haunted by his heartbreaking past. Meanwhile, Mira becomes so immersed in her slinky villainess role (“pure evil in a sexy way”) that the boundaries between herself and her character begin to blur.
As the deliriously audacious series unfolds, the auteur and his muse develop a lovely bond. Action flits between the silent original, the contemporary film-within-a-film and the making of both.
Dialogue switches from English to French. Just to make it even more multilayered and meta, Vikander also plays original Vep actress Musidora in flashbacks to the 1916 production, while Macaigne doubles up as Feuillade. Clear as mud? Très bon.
What begins as a gossipy, Call My Agent!-esque showbiz satire — all cynical execs, flustered lackeys and diva-ish luvvies — gradually morphs into something more philosophical about the relationship between fact and fiction, reality and dreams, life and art.
Around the midway mark, magical things start to happen. René sees ghosts from his past. Mira discovers she might have superpowers after all.
This is a charming world populated by enviably chic women and endearingly hapless men. Lost, lonely Mira falls in and out of bed with love interests of both genders.
Standouts among the ensemble cast include Jeanne Balibar as hedonistic costume designer Zoe, Devon Ross as hipster assistant Regina, and Lars Eidinger as hilariously un-PC German actor Gottfried. There are gorgeous song-and-dance sequences, kinky sex scenes and hotel suites which will have you idly daydreaming about romantic minibreaks.
Reminiscent of Sky stablemate I Hate Suzie, this giddily self-reflexive, occasionally peculiar series is packed full of ideas. It doesn’t quite pull them all off but you can’t help admire it for trying.
Oui, it’s pretentious but if a Gauloises-puffing Parisian drama can’t indulge itself with long, talky scenes, what can? The French capital looks ravishing. Assayas’s direction is dazzling. Vikander is a delight.
It’s probably not for everyone but once you tune into its whimsical rhythms, Irma Vep makes for a coolly captivating winter binge-watch. Witty, sophisticated, not always entirely successful, but rarely less than riveting.
Irma Vep is available to watch on Neon.
The Daily Telegraph