With his original 1996 film Irma Vep, writer-director Olivier Assayas took a defibrillator to the French film industry, attempting in his own puckish way to revitalize a cinema that had grown chaotic and creatively moribund. In the film — as in this new miniseries — an international star is brought into Paris for a remake of Les Vampires, Louis Feuillade’s ten-episode silent serial about a journalist seeking to expose a secret society of underground criminals, including Irma Vep, a diabolical woman disguised in a black catsuit. The role of René Vidal, the director of the movie-within-the-movie, was played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, a living legend whose role as Antoine Doinel in several François Truffaut movies, starting with The 400 Blows, made him the face of the French New Wave. Casting Léaud as a washed-up, middle-age filmmaker overseeing a rudderless production was itself a nasty satirical jab.
At the time, Hong Kong cinema was ascendant, blitzing festivals and Hollywood with a wave of talented directors like John Woo, Tsui Hark, and Wong Kar-wai, and glamorous stars like Tony Leung, Jet Li, and Michelle Yeoh. And so, as Irma Vep, Assayas cast perhaps the most alluring of all the Hong Kong stars, Maggie Cheung, to play herself. Over the course of the film, Cheung’s feeling of isolation in an unfamiliar culture, where she travels between a lonely hotel suite and a movie set of confounding dysfunction, sends her deeper into the Irma Vep character. The money sequence in the film, animated in the opening credits of the miniseries, is Cheung prowling around the hotel and its rooftop at night in the catsuit, as Sonic Youth’s “Tunic (Song for Karen)” plays on the soundtrack. (It’s almost inarguably one of the hippest films ever made.)
The basics of the miniseries Irma Vep, at least going by this lively first episode, are more or less the same: Foreign actress. Remake of Les Vampires. Clusterfuck production. But Assayas isn’t making a film about the state of cinema in the mid-’90s. He’s making a series about the industry in the 2020s, taking stock of a new set of conditions worth critiquing. And in place of Maggie Cheung, he has cast Alicia Vikander, who plays an A-list American actress who’s itching for an opportunity to step away from the Hollywood blockbuster scene and roll the dice on a less-expected part. Stepping in for Léaud is Vincent Macaigne, who’s younger and not nearly as well-known, but has appeared in work by prominent French directors like Mia Hansen-Løve (Eden), Louis Garrel (Two Friends), and Anne Fontaine (The Innocents). He may not represent French cinema like Léaud, but he’s his own brand of hot mess.
“The Severed Head” opens with Mira (Vikander) hustling through an awkward transitional moment in Paris, where she’s wrapping up the publicity on Doomsday, her latest blockbuster hit, before moving on to Les Vampires — an occasion marked by her leaving a five-star hotel suite for the presumably humbler digs of the French production. Her situation doesn’t recall Cheung’s in Irma Vep so much as Juliette Binoche’s in another Assayas film, 2014’s superb The Clouds of Sils Maria, in which Binoche is a huge movie star who wants to nourish her serious acting side while appearing in dumb spectacles. (One of the funniest shots in the film has Binoche and her assistant, played by Kristen Stewart, yawning through her latest 3-D smash.) Mira arrives in Paris with her new assistant Regina (Devon Ross) in tow and immediately has to run a professional and personal gauntlet.
The publicity obligations for Doomsday are merely an annoyance, with a press conference and overbooked TV spots followed by a premiere where she gamely signs autographs and poses for media photographers but looks very much like an actor at the end of a tour for a movie they don’t care about. More stressful for Mira is the arrival of Doomsday’s director, Herman (Byron Bowers), and his beautiful new wife Laurie (Adria Arjona), who happens to be Mira’s ex-assistant and ex-girlfriend. To say their relationship did not end well would be an understatement — Mira didn’t even RSVP the wedding invitation, much less attend — but Laurie still has a hold on her. And worse for Mira, Laurie knows it and uses the opportunity to flaunt her wealth and tease her relentlessly. Mira ends their final conversation in this episode with a resounding “Fuck you” after Laurie arrives 40 minutes late for a drink and immediately announces she’s leaving for dinner with Herman. But Mira is still dangling from the hook.
There are early indications that the Les Vampires set might not be the rich creative experience that she wants it to be, either. René is introduced floundering his way through a scene where a body is supposed to be pulled up from swamp water, but the blocking hasn’t been worked out yet. Meanwhile, he has made the mistake of telling the insurers the truth about the antidepressants he’s taking, which alarms his producer Gregory (played by Claire Denis favorite Alex Descas). The halting English in his first meeting with Mira is to be expected, but their communication troubles run deeper. He opens by saying, “I don’t care about movies. I used to, but not anymore. Maybe it will come back.” And then he talks about how his job, as a director, is “to screw the plan.”
In a sense, fucking up the plan may be what Mira wants from her little sojourn in France, given how much of her time in Hollywood is micromanaged down to the minute. But a second conversation with René proves more deflating: Mira has done her homework on Les Vampires. She’s watched the entire seven-hour series three times and researched the actress who originally played Irma Vep, Musidora, whom she found an inspiring woman — one of the first female directors as well as a novelist, film critic, and romantic adventurer. René sees her as more of an object, an inspiration to Surrealists and “an outlaw,” perhaps, but mostly a muse for men like him, not unlike the character of Irma Vep. It’s a subtle indicator that Mira may be leaving one creative box for another.
On the other hand, perhaps she won’t have René to worry about. The insurance company ruses to back the production with him as director due to a spate of batshit crazy behavior on past film sets. When Gregory reminds him of a film called Agony in the Garden, René immediately starts musing about his fondness for that underperforming picture, papering over the fact that he’d tried to run over the lead actor with his car. In another incident, he’d peed on another production’s period furniture, mostly because he didn’t respect it. He’s got all the worst aspects of a self-styled artiste and a lead actress who’s used to baseline competence, even on projects that mean nothing to her. It’ll be a long shoot.
• Excited to see that Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore returns with a co-credit for the score, though nothing has stood out as Thurston Moore–ish so far.
• “It’s a sequel to a whole bunch of them.” Mira’s Marvel confusion is mine, too.
• The ex-lovers’ friction between Mira and Laurie is nothing compared to two other actors in Les Vampires, Edmond and Severine, whose breakup was so bad that Edmond’s request for a sex scene with Severine’s character might violate a restraining order. When he mentions the possibility of an intimacy coordinator on set, she retorts, “You’re not touching me, supervised or not.”
• Mira loves the catsuit, just like Maggie Cheung. Her early attempt at pickpocketing a purse in her hotel here presages a lot of mischief to come.