“Deep down, you are an outlaw yourself,” a director tells his leading lady. “It’s what we share.” His star thanks him, taking the remark as a compliment, but insists she’s nowhere as daring as the character she’s tasked with playing.
This moment, in the first episode of HBO’s new series “Irma Vep,” is tossed-off and casual; the actors playing auteur and actress, Vincent Macaigne and Alicia Vikander, are believably weary, film-industry warriors just trying to get through the conversation, and the day. But — as is typical of the work of writer-director Olivier Assayas, who is adapting his 1996 film of the same title — there is a tricky and serpentine truth in the most offhanded of on-set talk. Vikander’s Mira begins the series as a rule-follower — obediently hitting her marks as part of a stage-managed superstar career. And it’s through a new role in independent cinema that she’ll find the rebel within.
Assayas, a French filmmaker who’s a regular at the Cannes film festival (where this TV series debuted in May), is a perennial commenter on the state of the entertainment industry. And “Irma Vep,” the 2022 edition, comes in a package that surely pleased its creator’s appraising sensibility and his taste for absurdity. It’s an eight-episode remake of a film that was itself about the process of remaking — Mira is in Paris, starring in a modern version of the classic silent film “Les Vampires.” The 1990s “Irma Vep,” which had Maggie Cheung attempting a “Les Vampires” re-vamp, was concerned with the ways big-money imperatives have shifted filmmaking; the 2020s have dosed those concerns with steroids. Mira is terminally bored with a career of big-IP projects. She’s just finishing up diffidently promoting a movie called “Doomsday” — suggestively titled, as if it represents a death knell for more than just its characters — and her agent (Carrie Brownstein) is trying to set her up with a lead role in “The Silver Surfer.” Macaigne’s director René, meanwhile, is coping with the reality that his film — “admittedly a bit long, divided into eight pieces,” he says — will be seen by philistines in the audience as that dreadful thing: TV.
Moments like that one animate what have, for this viewer, become tiresome back-and-forth games of inside baseball, lending them verve and life. The debates that core movie and TV fans have online every day can’t help but look more appealing when shot by a filmmaker as keen-eyed as Assayas, when acted with a perfect mix of sangfroid and passion, and when spoken in French (as the “eight pieces” line is). Even still, one will at times find oneself wondering who “Irma Vep” is for. Its most strongly asserted observations — for instance, that superhero movies are the economic engine propelling the TV industry but that they lack artistic integrity — leans toward the basic, even as they’re carried across wittily. And the thrumming undercurrent of dubiousness towards the “Vep” production, which is compromised in manners all its own, can come through a bit faintly.
So much so that one expects the sizable number of non-die-hards in the audience to fall away before things really get good: It’s become a cliché, the sort Assayas would pick on in one of his films, to say that good TV rewards patience, but this show really does. Among its pleasures is the work of Vikander, a clever and resourceful actor who’s had too few exciting opportunities since her Oscar win. (Her most notable work since that victory, in 2016, is likely the “Tomb Raider” reboot — another layer of meta for this show about a franchise actress seeking a break.) As she settles into her role on the “Les Vampires” set, she gradually moves from pinched and exhausted to a sort of capacious, sprawling willingness to take up space. Her libertinism and taste for pleasure of all sorts, about which we learn more as the show goes on, moves from coping mechanism to declaration of selfhood — the refusal to live within bounds. And her physicality shifts; as Cheung did before her, she tries on a catsuit and allows herself the indulgent pleasure of letting it change how she moves. If big-budget moviemaking is a prison, then Vikander-as-Mira, sylphlike and darting, is going to wiggle out between the bars.
Midway through the season’s run, Brownstein’s character, a classic L.A. monster who’s blithely honest about her brokenness, texts Mira that her being on location in Europe “mixes up your values.” “Maybe they need mixing up,” Mira replies. It’s a stand-up-and-cheer moment that’s mitigated, somewhat, by Mira delivering the line wordlessly, with her fingers into a smartphone. And, too, one wonders just what mixing things up is likely to get her.
Being obedient, hitting the familiar beats of an A-list career in the 2020s, has made Mira a wealthy and in-demand person. Being the performer she always wanted to be, in a project with real intellectual heft and sensual passion, makes her happy. Each of the two imperatives driving her takes time away from the other; Mira’s growing happiness is colored by the fact that she’s also, when she takes time to think about it, getting more confused. It’s a fitting message for a TV show on a major platform that carefully chooses its way forward, limiting its potential audience while sticking to its guns. And, though so stylishly stated it almost, somehow, feels new, it’s a truth as old as the silent-film era to which Mira and her director pay homage: When it comes to material success and artistic fulfillment, you can’t have both.
“Irma Vep” premieres Monday, June 6 at 9 p.m. E.T.