The Delightful Pretentiousness of Irma Vep

HBO’s wonderfully smart new series may be the most meta show on TV right now.

Vincent Macaigne as René the director, in the water with crew members, in 'Irma Vep'

HBO’s Irma Vep, perhaps the most meta show currently on TV, has the kind of high-concept premise that would confuse even its own characters. They’re members of a TV production themselves, but they can’t agree on the nature of what they’re making. One character suggests that they’re creating a long movie broken up into parts—like the way novels used to be published. Another character argues that they’re doing a TV show that’s essentially just “content … industrial entertainment ruled by algorithms.” Someone else scoffs at the idea of defining their project at all. “Who cares,” he says, “if cinema is art?”

Basically, they have no idea, and neither do viewers. But this confusion is part of the fun of watching Irma Vep. Created by the French writer and director Olivier Assayas, the HBO series is about the making of a TV show also called Irma Vep, which is itself an adaptation of the silent 1910s serial Les Vampires, which … included a character named Irma Vep. If that weren’t meta enough, Assayas is technically updating his own material as well. His 1996 film, titled—what else?—Irma Vep, had a similar concept. In other words: It’s remakes all the way down.

The new Irma Vep may seem to be built solely for cinephiles. But it’s accessible and self-aware in how it giddily honors and skewers the modern entertainment industry. Assayas is a former film critic who has long indulged in making movies about the way reality and fantasy blur on sets. His 1996 movie portrayed the egos, insecurities, and ambitions of creative personalities through his lens as an admiring outsider turned respected insider. The film captured how much he revered the craft—and how comical he found the proceedings, too. That sharpness has not dulled in the HBO series airing on Mondays; the four episodes out of eight that I’ve screened provide a clear-eyed examination of filmmaking as a uniquely volatile but venerated profession.

The artifice is always obvious in Irma Vep. Taking advantage of the additional run time afforded by a TV series, Assayas liberally incorporates even more scenes from the original Les Vampires than he had for his 1996 film, juxtaposing them with the remade ones created by his characters. The historical footage clarifies the difficulty of the new crew’s endeavor, but the viewer never gets fully immersed in their final product. That’s because Assayas is repeatedly emphasizing the amusing mundanity of life behind the scenes. Irma Vep—the show within the show—is shot on location in Paris, but Assayas rarely displays the glamorous side of the city, preferring to show hotel-room interiors, trailers, and on-set facades over tourist destinations. Amid the discussions of what qualifies as cinema, conversations about prosaic concerns—budgets, schedules, whether the show will be at all “binge-worthy”—get woven in. As if to point out the workaday air of Irma Vep, a brief scene even features a group of background actors discussing how Emily in Paris, the flashy Netflix series, provided “yummy” food on set. “Makes such a difference,” one of them marvels.

Alicia Vikander in 'Irma Vep'
Carole Bethuel / HBO

The characters benefit, too, from Assayas’s grander vision. In the original 1996 film, the Hong Kong actor Maggie Cheung played a version of herself as a fish-out-of-water movie star who, in trying to understand her director, gets swept up in her titular role, culminating in a stylishly surreal, whirlwind finale. The HBO series delves deeper into the psyches of both: The director, René (played by an excellent Vincent Macaigne), and his lead actor this time around, an American A-lister named Mira (Alicia Vikander), are dealing with not just the frenzy of making Irma Vep, but also the pressure of proving themselves as serious artists. Their constant defense of the project betrays their growing dependence on its success, and Assayas toys with whether that dependence comes from passion or desperation, adding playful yet irresistibly poignant layers to the story. Mira, much like Maggie, seems to be a woman possessed when she dons a slinky black catsuit to transform into Irma Vep. As the series goes on, the line between René and Assayas—who was briefly married to Cheung in real life a few years after making the first Irma Vep—blurs too.

With so much focus on the mechanics of moviemaking, the show, like the 1996 film, risks becoming too esoteric—as if Assayas were adapting François Truffaut’s Day for Night rather than riffing on a silent movie serial about a group of criminals who call themselves “The Vampires.” But the show exhibits a pleasurable lightness. The conversations between characters may focus on, say, how studios care only about audience needs these days, but the rhythm of such chatter reveals the way everyone on set, not just the actors, performs to some degree. René can barely contain his annoyance each time he addresses an insecure actor who keeps asking for unnecessary edits to the script. One of René’s assistant directors visibly struggles to keep her cool when her boss loses his. In a particularly droll subplot, she’s tasked with securing crack for a lead actor who claims that he can’t perform without the drug; the scene of her processing his request is a master class in terror being passed off as bemusement.

Such scenes provide an acute contrast to the moments when the parts of Irma Vep, René’s version, seem to come together. In one episode, he yells “Cut!” after finally achieving a perfect take—not just a clean adaptation of Les Vampires but the exact rendition of what he had envisioned in his mind. When he looks around him, he realizes he’s celebrating alone, but that doesn’t wipe the goofy, satisfied grin off of his face. The shot, for a second, distracted him from the personal and professional ghosts of his past. Filmmaking can be absurd, but it can also be magical, Assayas suggests. Call René and his cohorts snobs for insisting on the value of such art if you like. Just know that they’re chasing a feeling few ever get to experience.