cannes 2022

Irma Vep Is Not a Movie. Irma Vep Is a Concept.’

Director Olivier Assayas and his new star Alicia Vikander discuss remaking his beloved movie as a TV series (or whatever you want to call it). Photo: Carole Bethuel/HBO

More than two decades after he first zipped Maggie Cheung into the Irma Vep catsuit, Olivier Assayas is remaking his own hit film into a series for HBO. The name and source material (Louis Feuillade’s 1915 silent-film series Les Vampires) are the same — as are the meta critiques of the film industry and the general sense that everyone onscreen is slowly losing their minds — but this time around, Assayas has aimed his pointed satire at the French film industry and Hollywood, instead of exploring a famous Hong Kong actress’s disorienting experience of making a French film. The eight-hour series (or is it an eight-hour movie, as a character insists in an early episode?) centers on Alicia Vikander as Mira, a young movie star who’s disillusioned with her superhero-centric career and has defied her agents to jet off to France and do an indie remake of Feuillade’s classic.

As with the original, chaos ensues, but with the extended run time and budget, Assayas takes the opportunity to go deeper on themes like Mira’s sexuality (she’s brooding over an ex-girlfriend who won’t let her move on); an industry in ever-shifting crisis; and what happens to your brain when you put on very tight leather for several hours a day. Irma Vep is premiering at Cannes before its June 6 release date, and just before the show hit the Croisette, I caught up with Vikander and Assayas under an umbrella by the beach to talk about the challenges of remaking your own work decades later, the choice to cast a European actress in a role originated by a Chinese actress, and whether either of them had thoughts about Adele Haenel’s recent announcement that she was quitting the French film industry.

We might as well get right to the primary question: Why remake your own film 26 years later as a TV series?
Olivier Assayas: In many ways, a series has become the dominant format recently in filmmaking. I always thought it was not really for me, even if I did Carlos ages ago. I alway thought that series weren’t exactly my style, that I was more attached to movies and the big screen, but when I started wondering what could be a series for me, I thought maybe there’s a way that if I function with the right people and have the same kind of freedom I have while making my movies, maybe it’s worth giving it a shot. Doing something long format versus something closer to a short story.

I started playing with the notion of doing something based on my own movies, and Irma Vep came up instantly. Because Irma Vep is not a movie. Irma Vep is a concept. You can adapt it to any kind of film culture. When I did it in the ’90s, cinema was in turmoil for many different reasons. I think now it’s in turmoil for completely new and different reasons. It means I had a completely different engine and could tell a completely different story based on something I already visited in another time.

At what point did you get involved, Alicia?
O.A.: One of the reasons I moved ahead is I felt that with Alicia, I had the right character. I had Mira. We had known each other for a while at that point. We share so much in terms of how we live and breathe movies. But we never really had a project. When Irma Vep came up, I said, “The one person I can make this film with is Alicia.” So I went to her and made sure she was invested, that she was comfortable and curious about it and that the format didn’t scare her.

Alicia Vikander: I was kind of surprised to hear Olivier say, “I’m thinking about doing my own remake!” I was like, “What?!” That was the last thing I’d ever thought he would say. Then he told me about the reinvention of his own product, and I blindly said yes — that’s kind of how I choose all my films. He wrote it in three months. It was crazy. I felt like I had a weekly serial, with the new drops coming out. He’s a machine. You have a proper art-house auteur. I was just realizing yesterday that I couldn’t come up with another person who had written and directed a limited series without a writers’ room. I can’t think of anyone else who’s done it.

O.A.: David Lynch did that.

A.V.: Okay, that’s good company. You and David Lynch.

I was thinking about Twin Peaks: The Return, though it’s a bit different in that it’s a third season. There’s a joke in an early episode of Irma Vep about the project being an “eight-hour movie.” I know Les Vampires was a seven-hour “serial film,” and of course the debate about TV “actually being a long film” is constantly popping up these days. Are you sort of poking the bear with that line, or do you really see this as an eight-hour movie?
O.A.: It depends on what you call “film.” You can call it whatever you want. I always have the big screen in mind. That’s what attracted me to cinema; the collective experience of sitting in a theater. Now it just happens that that model is not self-sustainable anymore. That’s one of the major reasons for change in the way movies are being made and what’s possible in terms of cinema. I made this film for a platform knowing it would be shown on a small screen. Which is not so small anymore! People have projectors and so on. The border is not as clear as it once was.

I’m 100 percent aware that, like a lot of made-for-TV movies, this will look better on the big screen. But I also respect the fact that cinema doesn’t have the potential to finance and to handle a project of this size and this complexity. So I’m grateful to HBO because they made it happen. It’s very similar in those terms with Carlos. Who the hell would have allowed me to make a five-and-a-half-hour movie about terrorists? [Laughs.] They would think I’m nuts in the film world. When I went to TV, they said, “Sure! Great! You want three episodes, you can have three episodes.” In terms of structure of Irma Vep, it’s more novelistic in the sense that it’s the story of Mira going through a lot of things in a search for herself in a moment of crisis, shown from different angles. You can call it a series, you can call it a movie. It doesn’t really matter to me.

The original film was based on, and the character was named after, Maggie Cheung and her career — and I noticed, Alicia, that you have an IMDb credit for a character named Mira in Netflix’s The Dark Crystal series. Was that a purposeful meta thing?
A.V.: Oh, that’s true.

O.A.: I had no idea!

A.V.: I was like, a [character’s] voice. I didn’t even think about that.

O.A.: Okay, let’s say that’s true.

Do you relate to Mira’s experience of the industry?
A.V.: I think Mira and I are quite different people. But obviously we are in the same universe and do similar films. I found it interesting being a European actress and playing somebody who feels … a bit out of water in the European industry. I’m kind of afraid — not afraid, but I stay away from being public. I love to talk about my films and my work and present them, all of that, but as soon as I finish work I go back home to Portugal and I stay there. Mira has a very different approach and it’s something that’s quite common that I both admire and am curious about. Even though I have this job myself, I’ve chosen not to do that. Obviously when we meet her in the series, she’s kind of found herself at this crossroads, in a way. She’s been focusing so much on her work and has made a big decision against her agents to go to Paris and reinvent herself and her career. It’s something she does with all of her roles, and that’s something I can relate to.

I have a son now and I watch this 1-and-a-half-year-old running around and playing, and I’m like, that’s the same joy I find in my job. It’s playing pretend. I put on costumes and feel a bit of magic for a few seconds or minutes; I get to disappear and think I’m someone else. Mira has a similar experience. But she maybe hasn’t given enough to what her life is without work.

She expresses a frustration with having to do the more superhero-y movies and wants to focus on indie, artsy projects. You straddle that line as well. Do you have those same desires?
A.V.: I love doing those big films, but once I’ve done one, there’s a big thirst to do the complete opposite. It’s interesting — I’m excited to go and see Top Gun. 

O.A.: Me too!

A.V.: When I make independent cinema, I have a very romantic view of the craziness there is in trying to get a film together. It’s against all odds every time.

O.A.: I think shooting a film is more like a “happening,” like they had in the 1970s. Everyone has to enjoy it. The difference between the industry and independent filmmaking isn’t so much about format, length, and budget — the difference is the pleasure of making films. Independent filmmaking has protected the joy of filmmaking, whereas the industry has become controlling, defined by marketing issues. Everybody is scared. You feel you’re working with people who are scared for their jobs, scared not to do it right, scared not to do it the way the director or producers want. I want to have people who enjoy the beauty of filmmaking.

There is an obvious and major shift involved in the story here in that the main character is now a European actress versus a Chinese actress. Can you talk to me about making that choice?
A.V.: That’s brought up in the series. It will come up. [Laughs.] You can answer that question.

O.A.: To me, the thing is that I used Maggie as Maggie. Even if, of course, the Maggie is not exactly the Maggie in real life. We used her name, we used her career, we used the fact that she had been playing the girlfriend of Jackie Chan in so many movies. But to me at that point, it was about East meets West. When I was a journalist, I really championed Asian films and genre filmmaking, and that’s always been important to me as an inspiration — bringing the energy of Chinese cinema into the world of independent French filmmaking at a moment when I felt the French industry was less vital than it was in the past, and filmmaking was happening in such a fascinating and powerful way in Asia. But now I don’t think it works that way anymore. People are very aware of Asian cinema and Hong Kong films have faded in many ways.

Maggie was like an alien coming from the Orient, and Mira is an alien coming from Hollywood. I like the idea of confronting what’s going on in Hollywood with blockbusters and special-effects movies, and indie filmmaking in Europe. Hollywood is always a caricature. It’s an easy target. The way I put it in the film is that Maggie has been such a big part of my life, we were married for many years, and there was no Chinese actress in my view who could substitute for Maggie. It would not have made sense; I wanted to keep intact what happened with Maggie on Irma Vep. 

Mira is openly queer, as well. In the first film, Maggie gets hit on by a female makeup artist but seems a little uncomfortable and conflicted. Can you both talk about the choice of making the subtext text here? Is it partly that being openly queer is less taboo for a celebrity than it was in the ’90s?
A.V.: I mean, Olivier wrote it — for me, it’s just love and relationships.

O.A.: The whole point of making a series out of Irma Vep was to go two steps further on themes I had only toyed with in the original. The original is 95 minutes and I wrote it in nine days in a kind of stream of consciousness; I had no idea what I was doing and only when it was finished did I realize what it was about. There are a lot of themes that I expanded. But I always use elements that were present in the original. I had space and time to push them much further. The character of Maggie, we don’t know so much about her. She’s more of a witness, wide-eyed and looking at the strange going-ons around her. Here, we are with Mira. Everything is seen from her point of view, but she’s also the active engine. She is the one character that makes the story go forward and what we are interested in simultaneously is her adventures in filmmaking and her search for her own identity, her sexuality, made possible by the fact that she was on her own in a strange world.

At one point, Mira says, “I’m young, I’m a movie star, what matters is staying sane.” And she sort of starts to blur into her character. Do you get as sort of cellularly changed by your work as Mira does?
A.V.: Yeah, I’m not — I guess Mira isn’t either — a method actor. I like going to work and going back home and leaving it. But when I do make films, I very much love to immerse myself. I let go. I tend to fall in love and become obsessed by the character I’m playing. I sit at home and my imagination and fantasies start running, but you show up on set and the energy — it’s not until I have the other actors and the costume and the room that changes me.

There’s another meta layer to this, in that it’s a critique of the French film industry coming out just as Adele Haenel is retiring from the same after her experience with Bruno Dumont’s latest, calling the industry itself “reactionary, racist, and patriarchal.” Did you see that story and do you have thoughts on it?
A.V.: No, I haven’t.

O.A.: Neither have I. Those things are like politics. I believe in the ethics of filmmaking. I think it’s important to have ethics in all areas that concern filmmaking.

A.V.: Olivier’s sets might be some of the nicest sets I’ve been on in my career.

O.A.: What I’m saying is that the moral should be about how you work, what you give to the people who work with you, how you don’t exploit them but actually work with them. All of my movies have always been about the love I have for my actors. A lot of people don’t function like that. They need conflict, to have a fight, often to get wherever they want to be. They are playing with a dangerous line. I try not to do that.

Right. I’m sure it’s not the entire French film industry, but it’s interesting that she took this stand at this moment. And you’re critiquing the system as well in the series.
O.A.: Yes. I don’t know. I’m kind of cut off from the French film industry. It’s true.

So perhaps you agree.
O.A.: Perhaps I agree. I didn’t want to say that, but that’s what I implied. [Laughs.]

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

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Irma Vep Is Not a Movie. Irma Vep Is a Concept.’