In Olivier Assayas’ original 1996 film Irma Vep, the signature sequence where Maggie Cheung dons the catsuit and prowls around the hallways, balconies, and rooftops of her hotel underlined her sense of alienation from the entire production. Here she was, a stranger in a strange land, dealing with the ineptitude and creative inactivity of the French film industry half a world away from the competency and verve of her home in Hong Kong. And her way of managing the situation is to immerse herself so completely in the role that she becomes Irma Vep — partly to salve her loneliness, partly to find the artistic fulfillment she isn’t getting on set.
That has been Mira’s experience, too, though René, for all his insecurities and manic episodes, feels more genuinely connected to the project than Jean-Pierre Léaud in the original film. Her time in Paris was always intended as an escape for Mira, both from an industry that wants her to star in soulless dreck like Doomsday and a gender-reversed Silver Surfer and from her break-up with Laurie, which followed an equally painful break-up with Eamonn. But in this miniseries, it hasn’t been just one big sequence where Mira wears the catsuit and wanders around, but an entire arc until itself, one that’s grown stranger and more abstract over time. Assayas is not just asking the viewer to observe Mira in a bit of off-hours role play, but to see her as the embodiment of a literal spirit, capable of walking through walls and defying any expectation we might have of an established screen reality.
Granted, that’s a huge cognitive leap to take. So now Mira-as-Irma can literally act like a ghost, stealing a necklace or listening in on private conversations? And when she simply materializes in a room to talk to René or Jade, neither of them seems surprised by it? For Assayas, it looks like the next natural step for what has always been a ghost story. The first film was about reviving a silent serial from the teens, and now the series is about the revival of the revival, and the spirits of 1915 and 1996 are now tumbling forward into the present. To him, there’s value in challenging our assumptions about what movies (or eight-hour serialized movies) can do, particularly at a time when they’re so commercialized and vapid.
In that respect, the key scene in “The Spectre” is the garden party that follows Gottfried’s last day on set. From the moment he stepped off a train from Scandinavia, demanding a re-up on his crack supply, Gottfried has been a chaos agent, but one who’s been most beneficial to the production. He’s difficult to accommodate and says all the wrong things — incredibly, that interview he gave to the two web journalists has not surfaced — but he’s a professional who turns up on set and delivers, even the morning after he nearly lost his life to autoerotic asphyxiation. His monologue to the cast and crew is practically the thesis statement of this entire show, so it’s worth looking at in full:
“What brought me to cinema was a sense of freedom. Cinema was the wild west, you know? You may forget it at times. Why are we making movies now? Who’s willing to put their lives on the line for movies? We live in boring, dark, dull times. Where is the sense of adventure? Where’s the mayhem? Where’s the chaos? The industry has taken over cinema. Lawyers, big-dollar franchises, platforms, you name it. But indie films, they are no better. They preach until you are sick of them. Cinema was for bad guys and bad girls. Like Musidora. Like rock and roll.”
Amen, brother. “Boring, dark, dull times” is right, though making Mira’s ghostly appearance in costume later is about as far as this Irma Vep has gone in pushing the envelope. Granted, the very existence of an eight-episode miniseries based on an obscure French cult favorite from the mid-‘90s is improbable and bold and a good argument for how the niche-y nature of the current television landscape has led to projects that would never have had a home in the past. But Assayas isn’t a bomb-thrower by nature. He can make films about directors who chop their own footage into a scratched-up experimental montage on artistic impulse, as René does in the original film and has started to do in this episode, but Assayas isn’t the type to slash up his own canvas.
For the penultimate episode of a series, Irma Vep doesn’t have a lot of narrative momentum, which may be by design, but has kept the stakes at the lowest of simmers. The only important bit of business plot-wise is that Herman has now taken over as director of the show and imposed his Herman-ness on a project that had once reflected René’s very different sensibility. (Assayas’ contempt for the Steadicam and drone shots Herman wants to include could provide enough power to light a city block.) The sad truth is that, from a producers’ standpoint, Herman is now providing exactly what René could not — a steady hand, a commercial instinct, and the assurance that he’ll get across the finish line. The fascinating part of this development, however, is that Mira has never wanted it. The whole point of doing a French TV show was to get away from Herman and Laurie, and her experience with René, as bumpy as it has been, has given her a certain amount of creative juice.
What Mira seems to realize toward the end of the episode, when she talks to René about the “black magic” of cinema and her wish for him to finish the job, is that she has the power to do something about it. The new Les Vampires doesn’t happen without her in the lead role because it’s basically a loss leader for a cosmetics company that wants to secure her services. It’s not in her nature to be a demanding star — Regina or her agent usually do that kind of dirty work for her — but she can reset the course of this entire runaway production. She has the black magic to do it.
“I’m going to teach these people how to make a film today.” Herman is probably not wrong about that.
• Not the most comic episode this week, but the scene where Zoe summons a “bondage consultant” to work on a scene where Lily Flower gets taped to a chair is a hoot. (“We met on the dark net,” says Zoe.) The consultant demands to know who is the “dom” and who is the “sub” before he’s informed that it’s not that kind of bondage. Everyone is pleased by how much better the scene plays with his taping method, but when asked how extreme it is on a scale of one to ten,” he says “one” dejectedly.
• The Musidora memoir excerpt about the actress having to lay in front of an actual moving train is exhilarating and a good demonstration of the danger Gottfried feels is lacking in moviemaking.
• Congrats to Regina for locking down her first feature at 25. Do you know who else made his first movie at 25? A promising gentleman by the name of Orson Welles. The movie was called Citizen Kane.
• Assayas’ reputation as the coolest of film directors will only be strengthened by the appearance of Goblin’s Suspiria soundtrack on vinyl here.