One question that’s never satisfactorily answered in the movie Irma Vep, and now the miniseries, is simply “Why?” Why dust off this century-old French serial for a contemporary audience? What’s the actual artistic motive at work here? What spin is being put on it? For Olivier Assayas, the director of the movie and the creator of this series, not having an answer is the point. A revamped (pun intended) Les Vampires is his comment on the French entertainment industry eating its own tail, like a more pretentious version of the creative stasis that has led Hollywood to remake, reboot, and otherwise plunder existing IP. For the René Vidal in the film, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, it was a desperate effort by a has-been filmmaker to recapture long-ago magic. And it ends with him slashing his own footage to ribbons.
The René of the series, played by Vincent Macaigne, appears to have an even more pitiful motive: He has a thing for women in catsuits. As he explains to his therapist, he watched Diana Rigg in The Avengers on television as a child and became obsessed with her — though he wants to make clear he respects Rigg as an artist and it was her character, Emma Peel, that excited him. René dodges the question over whether he pleasured himself while thinking about her, but the therapist’s office is clearly the one place he can go to confess that he’s constructing an entire limited series television program around a base fetish. Perhaps more will be revealed later about René’s grander, more sophisticated vision, but this is all he’s got for now.
And it’s barely enough. Coming off last week’s episode, there was panic and uncertainty in the production because René’s past erratic behavior — and current selection of mood stabilizers — has scared off the insurance company. To Mira’s agent Zelda, played with delectable nastiness by Carrie Brownstein, this represents a golden opportunity for her client to wriggle out of a project that she always hated. “Doomsday is a massive hit,” she says. “Time to cash in.” It isn’t in Zelda’s interest to aid Mira in taking small projects, of course, because Mira has a shot at a gender-reversed Silver Surfer reboot that will take up less time and make her a lot more money. She isn’t necessarily defying Mira’s wishes, either: There can be a narrow window on fame in Hollywood, especially for women, and if Mira squanders this opportunity in favor of an arty French serial, that window might start to close.
And how much does Mira even know what she wants anyway? “The Ring That Kills” opens with her assistant, Regina, getting a tour of Mira’s cozy new hotel room, which has two rooms and a terrace with a lovely view of Paris, though the curtained bathroom opens right up into the living room. This won’t do. “It’s nice,” concedes Regina, “but it’s a fucking junior suite,” and she knows Mira will not be happy about it, even though she knew this was a modest French production. Maggie Cheung does not complain about her even smaller digs in the original Irma Vep, but there seems to be a consensus between Regina and Zelda, who otherwise detest each other, about what’s suitable for their client. This dalliance with international filmmaking may not be for her.
Yet Mira’s attitude in these first days on set is mostly engaged, even when she has to sit through nasty infighting among her French hosts. Stepping into this role once played by the enigmatic Misadora is a challenge that’s completely alluring to her once she has the chance to work on it. She feels great about the slight improvisation she adds to a mesmeric choreographed dance, and when the cinematographer brings her in for a lighting test, she can’t help but slink around like a thief, even if she slips off-camera. Keep in mind, that Mira has come to Les Vampires not merely (or even mostly) as a chance to stretch herself artistically but to hide from her ex, Laurie, and from the scrutiny she would expect to get back in Los Angeles. Actors disappear into roles. There’s something therapeutic in that idea for her.
Much to Zelda’s presumed chagrin, Les Vampires doesn’t lose its director because René goes to another doctor for a second opinion, and that doctor seems determined to give him the green light, despite his admissions that he “can’t stand interactions with people” and has panic attacks. (Many TV critics will also tell you René is a lunatic for calling the series a film “divided into eight pieces.”) Though René has not blown up at Mira yet — he even tolerates her pointing out obvious holes in the script — there’s already evidence of his hilariously petulant behavior behind the camera, especially with Edmond, who had spent the previous week begging him for a better revenge motive. This week, René is fed up. “Next time you say ‘motivation’ again, I’ll strangle you,” and he doesn’t even wait that long to go for the throat. Later, Edmond complains that René hit him on the head with a monitor.
To sum up: Les Vampires is an eight-part movie directed by a barely insurable, borderline psychotic auteur who never got over seeing Diana Rigg in a catsuit at a formative age. Mira has only gotten a small taste of the dysfunction to come.
• The week’s funniest subplot involves the arrival of Lars Edinger as Gottfried, a German stage actor who makes an unusual request from the production: He has a crack addiction and needs to score some more to perform. (He’d foolishly mistaken someone for a customs officer on his three-day train trip from a film festival in northern Finland and flushed his stash down the toilet.) He threatens to jump out the window if he can’t get any, which leads Carla, his escort from the train station, to issue a discreet request for a ground-floor room at the hotel.
• A “high-concept, feminist, lady-led superhero movie” from a guy who directed a Grimes video. Certainly sounds like Hollywood in 2022.
• “I’ve never actually tried crack.” “Don’t believe what they say. It doesn’t fry your brain. Not entirely.”
• Of Herman, the director of Doomsday, Mira says, “He’s a good guy. But I wouldn’t pay to see a movie of his.” Surely there are plenty of A-list actors who are saying the same thing privately about their biggest movies.
• “Why would the Vampires write down all their secrets in a notebook?” “Who hired Irma Vep to be her maid?” Straightforward logical questions that are, in the true French way, are not worth dignifying with a response.