To a large degree, this Irma Vep is a savagely self-deprecating enterprise for its creator, Olivier Assayas. With his 1996 cult classic of the same title, Assayas could play the hip, irreverent young film critic, using the story of a French New Wave fossil reviving Louis Feuillade’s silent crime serial as a means to comment on the sorry state of French cinema — and exalt the relative creative health of the Hong Kong scene, as represented by the glamorous Maggie Cheung. But in turning his movie into his own eight-episode TV miniseries, Assayas knows that he’s guilty of feeding the content mill with a revival of a revival, and that the indulgent director of the series-within-the-series is the worst version of himself. He’s still offering critical commentary, but he can’t claim to be an outsider anymore.
Just such a meta-conversation breaks out at a house party near the beginning of this raucous third episode, as Mira and Zoe speed off in a moped to see a Royal Trux show but get waylaid by delivering Gottfried a much-needed supply of crack. While lounging around in the backyard, Regina offers the absurd statement that the pioneers of early silent cinema were the original content creators. She says they’d invented this magical projection system “and they had to generate content to keep people hooked.” But it’s Zoe, the brusque, no-bullshit veteran, who lays out the most cynical assessment of the modern TV streaming landscape: “They’re not long movies. They’re content. Industrial entertainment run by algorithms.”
We saw this same sort of pushback on an episode of Barry this season, when Sally had her critically acclaimed new show canceled by a Netflix-like entity because “the algorithm felt it wasn’t hitting the right taste clusters.” It’s a small mercy for the makers of Les Vampires — and the new Irma Vep — that they won’t have to worry about having their project renewed by such mysterious metrics, but the entire conversation is Assayas’s humble admission that he’s part of the content mill now too, however absurdly niche-y (and still extremely cool) a serialized adaptation of Irma Vep happens to be. When Edmond talks about “stretching content” being the opposite of art, Assayas is implicating himself a little.
The self-deprecation doesn’t end there either. Assayas famously married Cheung after directing her in Irma Vep, and the two divorced after just a few years, though the split was amicable enough to where Assayas directed her again in his 2004 drug-rehab drama Clean. Assayas barely even masks the reference to Cheung in a scene in which René talks to his therapist about having already done Irma Vep as a low-budget indie film a long time ago and casting an actress named “Jade Lee” in the lead. The footage we see of Jade Lee wandering around the rooftops of Paris in her catsuit is lifted directly from the ’96 Irma Vep, and René’s laments about his own brief marriage to Jade sound extremely autobiographical: “I was completely in love with her … and then it just faded. One day it was over.” She was the one who ended it.
In the meantime, the show must go on. The glimpses we get of the making of Les Vampires continue this rolling calamity of a production, and Mira finally gets a taste of René’s irritation. It’s her fault, really: After being out all night at the party, she arrives at the hotel to find production ready to escort her to set. And so when René launches into his usual confusing instructions about the dastardly plot of the day, he catches Mira’s attention drifting off task. She’s a model of professionalism, however, compared to Gottfried, who arrives on set after a crack-and-liquor bender by throwing up two more times before he stumbles into his trailer. It’s part of the process for him. When the camera is rolling, he seems to hit his mark every time, playing the evil villain of the story with the requisite dramatic élan. He has been a high-functioning junkie for as long as anyone has known him.
“Dead Man’s Escape” gets even juicier when it leaves its own hall of mirrors and digs into Mira’s screwed-up love life, which may be a bigger reason she’s in Paris than any nobler creative ambition. She pays a visit to her former boyfriend, Eamonn, who is in town on a big-budget sci-fi shoot that’s basically Blade Runner without all the things that made Blade Runner any good. (“Audiences find rain really depressing, there’s no recognition for replicants, and I think they had a hard time with the concept of neo-noir,” reports Eamonn of the market research.) Back in Eamonn’s trailer, the two comb through their painful romantic history: How she left him suddenly for Laurie, how he’s going to be a father despite telling her he never wanted kids, how they “fucked up” and can’t find the way back again. Among his abundant talents as a filmmaker, Assayas has always been insightful about human relationships and allowing them to exist in a space where both partners are flawed and make terrible mistakes. This scene between Mira and Eamonn is full of lament, as well as a residual attraction that neither of them is in a position to act on. Eamoon is starting to figure out what he wants — his new relationship and impending fatherhood signify that — but Mira is still reeling. She doesn’t know how she feels. She doesn’t know who she’s attracted to. She doesn’t know what the next step forward is going to be.
For now, she’s Irma Vep. That’s a welcome distraction.
• Mira and Zoe miss the Royal Trux show, which would have been quite an experience for them. I saw Royal Trux at the 40 Watt in Athens, Georgia, back in the mid-’90s, right before they made a brief, ill-fated leap to a major label (the album cover for their second and final record on Virgin is a good indicator of how things went), and I can say definitively that Royal Trux is the most terrifying band I’ve ever seen live. At the time, my friend and I had a habit of turning up early to shows to get a spot right in front of the stage, but the stage presence and sonic assault of Neil Hagerty and Jennifer Herrema had us both frozen in terror. Seems unlikely they’ve softened up much with time.
• Never leave an envelope of crack with the concierge.
• Gottfried’s interview with the online press seems certain to cause some headaches for the production. It’s almost a matter of which quotes will get him in the most trouble: the one about his boredom with gay culture (“They preach. I’m not interested in preaching. All I cared about is sticking my dick up their asses”) or the one about him being a registered Republican (“Fuck the liberal media elite and all those Latinos stealing our jobs. Look at the Academy Awards. It’s all about Mexican directors and Koreans…”). The extent to which Gottfried means what he says is questionable. But now is not a great time for serial provocateurs.
• Regina is taking an interest in Mira now. Will history repeat itself?
• One of the funnier threads of this episode (and the series) is the continued creative battle between René and Edmond. In one scene, René isn’t satisfied that Edmond is getting struck in the head hard enough, despite his agony at being knocked out. In another, René seems to try to finish the job by sending Edmond careening in a basket down a long flight of stairs. And yet the two have a miraculous creative moment when they come together on Edmond’s motives in a scene and get excited about the results. Perhaps René will have to find a new target for his ire.