It was inevitable that the chaos hovering around the set of Les Vampires would finally break out, like the tremors before a volcanic eruption. Here is a production with a director so volatile that it spooked the insurance company, a German actor who arrives in town needing to replenish his crack supply, and a financier whose only interest in the series is to make its star the face of his new cosmetics line. The steadiest presence on set is Mira herself, who is using the opportunity to disappear from a recent heartbreak and the accompanying tabloid scrutiny of Los Angeles. It would be easy for her to peace out on this train wreck and make bank on the gender-reversed Silver Surfer role her agent is begging her to take, and she’d suffer little reputational damage for it.
In that respect, this Irma Vep aligns perfectly with Olivier Assayas’s 1996 film, in which Maggie Cheung not only plays herself but is also the ambassador of a more functional, professional film industry. At the time, Hong Kong was pumping out some of the most exciting, stylish action and art movies on the planet, and there were no signs that the machine was breaking down, at least not before the city was handed over to China the following year — and even then, change would come slowly. Mira stands in for Hollywood, which may not be a great inspiration to the world but still colonizes it with movies of enormous scale. The idea of anyone halting production in a fit of anger is foreign to someone like Mira. In America, the show must go on.
“The Thunder Master” may be the funniest episode of the show to date, the calamitous punch line to a season of setup. We had seen plenty of René blowups before, most frequently with Edmond, the actor who kept pestering him with requests to beef up his role, but every day is an adventure with him, riding the waves of his anxiety and petulance. Last week, it seemed like he had the upper hand on Robert, the older actor cast as the Grand Vampire but who lost favor with René after objecting to the mesmeric “seduction” of Irma Vep. René decided to get his revenge by completely writing Robert out of the show, leading to a hilarious scene in which he cheers behind the monitor as Mira’s Irma empties her revolver barrel into the Grand Vampire. “Yes!” he screams as if Rocky just knocked out Ivan Drago. “Now jump on him with both feet!” It should be a moment of triumph for René over his latest adversary, but it’s more like the prelude to a nervous breakdown. He disappears from the set, doesn’t respond to calls, and sends a wave of panic through the ranks.
Not that any of this was unexpected. Grégory, his producer for 15 years, is certainly unhappy about it, but there’s some suggestion that this is part of René’s process, a consequence of his raging misanthropy and spasms of self-doubt. The problem with this production of Les Vampires, however, is that the moneyman, Gautier, was never that interested in making a René Vidal project anyway. He just needs someone to finish it, regardless of whether that person’s sensibility clashes with René’s. That’s the thing about television: It’s not a director’s medium, unlike film. Once the look of a show is established, different directors are cycled in and out of it all the time. The situation here is not quite analogous since the series about the miniseries is entirely written and directed by Assayas, whose stamp here is unmistakable. But René is so disposable that his replacement is found within 24 hours.
But the trouble doesn’t end there. Gottfried cannot make it to the next day’s shoot, according to Carla, because “he hung himself in some sort of sex game” and “we’re not sure if he’s completely alive.” Even if he pulls through, which isn’t assured by any means, the doctors expect him to suffer potentially debilitating brain damage. And yet there’s absolutely no question that Gottfried, a man as unkillable as Keith Richards, will pull through. When he pulls himself up from his hospital bed, removes himself from the monitors, and climbs out the window in his gown and a pair of cowboy boots, it really just feels like another day for him. And his first instinct is to make his way to the set, which explains why Gottfried continues to get roles. At the end of the day, he hits his marks.
Gottfried’s account of his evening is a comic high point. “I was quietly sitting in my hotel room,” he says, “reading this really cool book about drugs and Nazi Germany called Blitzed. Heard of it? It’s fascinating. Did you know all those idiot troops were on speed?” When he is told that, no, he actually hanged himself in his closet in the act of autoerotic asphyxiation, Gottfried nods as if that’s perfectly normal: “Now I understand the neck pain and strangulation marks.” It usually helps him with erections, but he admits that sometimes he “blacks out.”
For Mira, these disputations inspire her to sink that much deeper into the fantasy of playing Irma Vep, especially after learning that Herman, the Hollywood hack who directed her in Doomsday and got engaged to her ex-girlfriend Laurie, has been hired as René’s replacement. The episode’s opening scene, in which René and Mira arrive to set early and talk about the dreamlike unreality of making movies, sets up an ending that departs from reality altogether. Once again in her catsuit getup, Mira not only slinks into Herman and Laurie’s hotel room but slips through the walls like a ghost, witnessing their intimate moments and, in true Irma Vep fashion, boosting a gaudy necklace from the mantel. Mira will get what she wants out of this surreal shitshow, even if the set collapses around her feet.
• When René asks her if she believes in “the invisible, like Wi-Fi,” Mira replies, “Yes. Though sometimes I feel like it’s not there and it’s not working.”
• I’m going to have to make a GIF of René cranking up his middle finger to Robert. Seems like that may come in handy.
• It took me six episodes to figure out what surely all of you already know: “Mira” is an anagram for “Irma.” You’d think that someone who has written “Mira” and “Irma” as many times as I have for six weeks would have made that connection by now, but alas.
• The only man less surprised about what happened to Gottfried than Gottfried is his doctor, who notes that such “games” are commonplace in France: “On summer vacations, men get bored and play with their dicks.”
• Exciting to see Regina get a chance to direct and turning to Kenneth Anger for inspiration for her one scene. The wild, experimental superimpositions of Anger’s images are not far off from what happens to the Les Vampires remake in the original Irma Vep, so perhaps Regina’s creative contributions aren’t done yet.
• One thing René has in common with Feuillade: a total disregard for safety. In a very funny filmed “excerpt” from Musidora’s memoir, Feuillade approves an actual explosive to go off in the middle of a cabaret, even after being told that the extras would likely get injured. “Triple pay for the wounded,” he announces.
• Herman on his artistic limits: “I know I’m not a Coen brother. Those motherfuckers are geniuses.”