Assayas writes a love letter to cinema in all its forms
Written and directed by the French director Olivier Assayas, Irma Vep – Life imitates art is an American and French miniseries based onAssayas film of the same name from 1996. The series, consisting of eight episodes, was distributed by HBO in America and by Sky in Italy from 3 August.
Played by Alicia Vikander, Mira is a young actress who became known thanks to her recent role in a blockbuster, but, above all, due to a media scandal. To try to change her life both work and personal, Mira agrees to interpret Irma Vep in a remake of The vampiresa French silent film serial.
A metanarrative tale – Irma Vepthe review
Irma Vep is a metacinematographic tale in its purest form: life on the set, the star system, the relationship between the director and his muse up to one of Assayas’ favorite topics, namely the dualism that sees the cinema as an art form but also as an industry.
Most of the series takes place inside the studios where Mira enters into a deep connection with her iconic character, a path that leads her to be a different person as well as an actress with a very different vision of her work. Irma Vep moves like a ghost between setsan inspiring muse for both René and Mira who changes both by confusing reality with fantasy.
Each character represents a different way of seeing cinema: Mira is a blockbuster actress facing a media scandal involving her previous relationship and sexual orientation; the producers represent the commercial side of cinema as opposed to director René (played by a very good Vincent Macaigne) who falls mind and body in his role, even at the expense of neglecting his precarious mental health. René is Assayas’ alter ego who has already proposed the story of Irma Vep in a 1996 film.
Renè had also already worked on another adaptation of Irma Vep played by a protagonist of Chinese origins (as in the Assayas film) with whom he shared a marriage that drained the director.
The series can be read on several levels. Irma Vep analyzes every angle of a film production from the most cynical to the most artistic side. A discourse that evolves to include criticism and themes dear to the evolution of cinema.
Irma Vep plays on two levels dear to cinema lovers, the analogue and the digital one accompanied by the different forms of use. If for many it is blasphemy to see a film on the screen of the mobile phone, Assayas goes further and shows his characters clips from the serial Vampires on all kinds of devices. The archive images are combined with the scenes of the TV serieseventually merging until the point of view of the original Irma Vep is introduced.
Through extracts taken from his biography, some moments from the life of the set de The vampires become scenes recreated in the series, where the actors who play the characters in the 2021 miniseries play the role of their counterparts from the early 1900s, dialoguing openly with another way of making cinema. Irma Vep and Mira become one person both outside and inside the set, an inspiration that goes beyond time and space, reality with fantasy. As a muse, Mira becomes a ghost who wanders in a Paris at night, spying on the lives of others.
Irma Vep is a window on the cinema, a TV series to watch if you love cinema in all its shapes and sizes. An open discussion with the director why Assayas offers more food for thought accompanied by a careful but not cynical eye.
In Irma Vep there are stars who come from a more commercial and mainstream background who are not portrayed as specks, spoiled and bored stars. As in the case of Mira, who became famous thanks to a superhero blockbuster, which deviates from the stereotype of the young and famous actress whose aura is built by her agent and her assistant more than by Mira herself.
Assayas brings an honest portrait of contemporary cinema to the screenspeaking of Marvel (but without ever mentioning the franchise), of the directorial style to which today’s audience is accustomed and the working method that differs exponentially from the independent or more niche cinema to which Assayas belongs without, however, praising one to the detriment of the other.
A point of view that is also noticeable in the choice of distribution house – HBO and Sky in Italy – certainly not indie, as well as the choice of the protagonist known by the general public, but also by cinema lovers for her more niche roles. Choices that are also reflected in the secondary characters – including Kirsten Stewart, of course – in which more or less famous actors mix: from Vincent Macaigne, more famous in France, Tom Sturridge, who became famous globally thanks to the just released The Sandman.
Irma Vep is a love letter to the cinema in all its forms, facets and shades created by a director who does not put himself in a privileged position to elevate himself and his works, but rather that through the serial language brings a remake to the small screen; an operation that in recent years is both appreciated (just look at the successes at the box office and the proposals for prequels, sequels and remakes of famous films decades ago) and much criticized, labeled as an easy way to go in order not to bring new stories.
Assayas brilliantly manages to talk about the stardom of the 1920s and the contemporary one, of inspiration, mental health and toxic relationships while including all the most talked about topics in US cinema (and not only): on scenes that may not be appreciated by a female audience or made up of minorities, such as cultural appropriation or the sexualization of female bodies.
The director, continuing with his vision of a story from a set, mentions several points of view of the same problem where René is repeatedly called into question for his position as an old-fashioned director to which today’s market must be explained. Assayas therefore plays a role that is not always easyseeing himself in a director who tries to keep up with the times, more capricious and moody than Mira and her muse who, on the contrary, have the task of bringing him back on the right path.