Irma Vep is a lot of things, but mainly it’s a lot of mental gymnastics. It’s an 8-episode, A24 and HBO-produced remake-sequel hybrid of the 1996 film of the same name. Irma Vep (1996), directed by series creator Olivier Assayas, follows a fictional French filmmaker as he attempts to recreate a very real French silent serial called Les Vampires from 1915. The series follows the same premise and aims to achieve a similar goal, but instead of exposing the inner workings of specifically the French film industry, HBO’s Irma Vep aims to expose the industry in the age of streaming and Peak TV. Irma Vep is incredibly meta, even dipping into the real-life story of the actress who played Irma Vep in Les Vampires, Musidora, with Alicia Vikander stepping in to play the actress alongside her series-long portrayal of Mira—who we see portraying Irma Vep throughout the series. Wrap your mind around that.
Mira herself, a disillusioned actress fresh off the biggest hit of her career in the form of a massive, sci-fi action flick, is the most interesting part of the series. Her relationships with both the film industry and those around her create a compelling character, one worthy of all the praise Irma Vep received upon its initial release.
Throughout the series, the disastrous filmmaker Rene Vidal (Vincent Macaigne) constantly insists that the series he is making, the remake of Les Vampires, is actually just a very long film rather than an actual TV show. In a way, HBO’s Irma Vep is as well. After watching the series in its entirety, which featured pain-stakingly boring stretches staccatoed briefly with some sense of urgency or compelling interaction between the characters, I can’t help but wonder if Assayas did it on purpose.
The series finale, titled “The Terrible Wedding,” does offer some closure, as it allows Rene to move on from Irma Vep as a character and their project The Vampires. The series’ quiet ending, which caps its run with a monologue from Rene about how love is the one true thing we all should circle back to, allows all the events of the show to simply fade away. Vikander’s Mira is sent back to Hollywood off-screen, leaving TV behind to shoot a prestige film that will likely win her an Academy Award. In fact, Rene is the only character within the series that actually gets any closure. With brand new characters taking up unprecedented importance in the finale, and essential characters simply disappearing with no resolution, Irma Vep ends in a quiet frustration. Any and all threads left hanging from the almost slice-of-life nature of the series simply don’t matter anymore, now that the show (both Irma Vep and The Vampires) is over. Which, ultimately, brings me back to this question: what was the value of this remake?
In 1998, filmmaker Gus Van Sant (Good Will Hunting) subjected the world to a nearly frame-for-frame remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. It failed spectacularly at the box office, received nearly universal hatred, and still remains a perplexing film to this day. Van Sant did an interview in 2018 discussing his reasoning for remaking the film, as well as why he decided to try to replicate it so closely. He revealed that, in the ‘90’s, executives “would rather make a sequel than an original piece, because there was less risk.” So, Van Sant gave the studios the risk-free film they wanted: a frame-for-frame remake of a huge hit. His intention? To prove to those studios that lighting doesn’t always strike twice, and that merely replicating what people loved once before doesn’t always guarantee success.
It sounds rather familiar, in our time of reboots, remakes, and never-ending franchises, doesn’t it? The push from studios to capitalize on intellectual properties has remained the same, only this time, the medium has changed. Now, it seems, studios want the next big limited series or the next massive TV show rather than the next blockbuster film. I mean, how many shows come to mind that definitely could have just been a two-hour movie rather than a 6-episode TV show? Everything from Disney+’s attempts at Marvel TV to the never-ending barrage of True Crime Docuseries stretch a thin story across too many episodes, becoming a multi-part movie rather than a true TV show.
HBO’s Irma Vep, in spite of its interesting moments and incredible lead performance by Vikander, suffers from the same problem, but maybe that was the point. Throughout the series, the characters discuss with each other the state of the entertainment industry, pointing out how your fate is to either make superhero movies (a favorite sub-plot of mine is Mira’s agent trying to get her to agree to become the female Silver Surfer) or prestige TV shows like the one they all find themselves working on. In Episode 6, Byron Bowers’ Herman, after being asked to finish directing the Irma Vep series after Rene bails, even questions if people will still be making movies in the coming years. While the characters within the show discuss the value and intrigue of doing a multi-part film disguised as a miniseries, the audience of the real world Irma Vep contemplates the same.
As the episodes continued on, and the plots continued to be either completely dropped (a lead actor got thrown down the stairs in a crate at one point as an episodic cliffhanger and nothing ever came of it) or move at a snail’s pace, I found myself asking: could this not have just been cut down into a film? Perhaps that’s what Assayas was after all along; agree to remake his own film, turn it into a miniseries, only for it to be so boring at times that its challenging watch becomes the commentary within a commentary. Proving through this nearly resolution-free series that not everything needs to have 8 episodes, and not every story can or even should be stretched to fit the whims of executives more hungry for a miniseries than a movie.
When watching Irma Vep feels like watching paint dry, and the meta nature of the series becomes overwhelming, it’s almost impossible to consider another reason. In Episode 7, Lars Eidinger’s Gottfried—an eccentric actor who is drunk or high much more often than he isn’t—remarks, “Indie films, they are no better. They preach until you are sick of them.” At that moment, Gottfried is preaching to the choir of his cast and crew, and Irma Vep is doing the same. The ultimate irony of Irma Vep’s inherent preachy messaging and potentially self-sacrificial nature is that the only ones actually listening are the ones intimately aware of the issues plaguing the industry in the era of streaming TV. Assayas truly is preaching to the choir, as the chorus of television enthusiasts and industry critics are the only ones actually aware of this utterly buzzless series.
With Irma Vep now complete, it almost feels like Assayas simply dislikes TV as a medium—it’s worth mentioning that this is his first series since 2010, and his first with more than three episodes. His characters use “Netflix” as shorthand for “brainless,” and his self-insert character Rene’s refusal to refer to The Vampires as anything but a film betrays his true feelings for the current state of the medium. While there are moments from Irma Vep that will stick with me, like Vikander’s musical performance from the end of Episode 7, the series’ disdain for its own medium and mirror-to-the-industry intention deters a rewatch, or even much thought beyond it.
Anna Govert is an entertainment writer based in Chicago. For any and all thoughts about TV, film, and the wonderful insanity of Riverdale, you can follow her @annagovert.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.