As of late, it seems all Hollywood is really interested in churning out are “remakes.” Who doesn’t love the return of a beloved superhero, a reboot of a classic sitcom or a revival of a decades-long film franchise? From a business standpoint, a surefire market of viewers makes reboots an objectively safe(r) place to pour money into and return “bigger and better,” oftentimes with a greater budget than the original was ever afforded. Yet, with revivals comes a whole slew of expectations from audiences, making any remake of substance a rather tricky artistic endeavor.
Beyond the capitalistic outcome of a project, there’s also the question of a remake’s true merit. To put it bluntly, if we consider a piece of art to be perfect, why bother messing with it? An update for the “times” always seems to be a weak excuse to me because if that work is so inextricable from the time period itself, would a modern-day remake even do it justice? Is what gets lost in the process just superfluous detail, or the heart and soul of the original?
To be fair, I have no concrete answer to any of this. Drawing the line between what distinctively makes one remake objectively good and necessary and another not is like trying to tell which “Full House” scenes included Mary-Kate Olsen and which ones included Ashley Olsen. But these are the questions that drive Olivier Assayas’s (“Personal Shopper”) TV series “Irma Vep,” just as they drove his ’96 cult-classic film of the same name. Fittingly enough, his return to the project mirrors the position of his fictional director in the original, who is similarly attempting to remake a classic film. Could the contextual circumstances be any more meta?
It’s quite easy to get lost in the metaverse of “Irma Vep,” so let me walk you through it.
In 1915 and 1916, Louis Feuillade directed a silent serial film called “Les Vampires” about a criminal gang and their evil muse, Irma Vep. In 1996, Assayas made a film called “Irma Vep” about a fictional director’s attempt to remake “Les Vampires,” with Maggie Cheung (“In the Mood for Love”) starring in the titular role. In the film, amidst the comedic chaos of a collapsing production, Assayas asked the quintessential question: Why remake what has already been done? What (in regards to both the fictitious remake of “Les Vampires” within “Irma Vep” and “Irma Vep” itself) is the film’s greater cinematic purpose? Clearly, Assayas still has some input on the matter, or at the very least, further questions to consider, as he returned to create this latest rendition of “Irma Vep” for the small screen in an eight-episode series with HBO Max.
“Irma Vep” follows Mira (Alicia Vikander, “Tomb Raider”), an actress who comes to France to star in a remake of the French classic film “Les Vampires.” Disillusioned by a recent breakup and a long contractual stint of action movies clouding her career, the line between reality and fantasy begins to blur as Mira immerses herself into the villainess role of Irma Vep.
Rather than start anew, “Irma Vep” leans into the meta, showcasing self-awareness of the layered history embedded in its existence. Although watching without any prior knowledge is certainly feasible, the easter eggs buried beneath the surface truly enrich the viewing experience. For instance, the name “Mira” is an anagram for “Irma,” just as “Irma Vep” is one for “vampire” in “Les Vampires.” These parallels manifest organically, as if each iteration of Irma Vep returns stronger than the last. When Mira tries on the iconic costume for the first time, she is suddenly possessed by an urge to sneak off, Irma Vep-style, gracefully creeping along a staircase in a shot-by-shot parallel to a scene from the ’96 “Irma Vep.” It’s as if Mira’s predecessors, and their respective portrayals, have seeped into the very essence of Vikander’s performance.
Just as Mira toes the line between the reality of her life and the alluring realm of being Irma Vep, the series as a whole sustains a similarly tenuous balance between reality and fiction. The fictitious remake’s financial troubles and sharp commentary on the present state of cinema ground the narrative and stabilize the fantastical nature of Mira’s escapades. The scenic shifts occur suddenly and without warning as Mira jumps from being in modern-day Paris in one instant to gliding through a dreamscape in the next. It deliberately turns the show on its head, allowing the audience to peer within not only Mira’s psyche, but Irma Vep’s as well.
Akin to a ghost story with pieces of the past living on in a new body, each rendition of “Irma Vep” peels back another layer of the character and Feuillade’s original masterpiece. The series expands upon the original’s potential, like a short story transformed into a full-length novel. Well executed and balanced, the show plunges to new depths as it smartly wields the comedic calamity of a film production with the broader questioning of its own purpose and relevance to cinema as a whole.
Daily Arts Writer Serena Irani can be reached at email@example.com.