The key scene in “The Terrible Marriage,” the feather-light final episode of Irma Vep, occurs between René and his therapist, who are discussing how he feels at the end of this tumultuous shoot. When they’d met closer to the beginning of the shoot, René was much more anxious, interrogating his own motives for wanting to revisit material that he’d turned into a movie — and a failed marriage — before and not necessarily coming up with noble artistic reasons for doing a miniseries about it. But now that it’s over, he seems uncharacteristically sanguine about the process, referring to movies as having a life of their own, a “black magic.” “You conjure them, they awaken you, and they leave you stranded,” he says wistfully.
When his therapist suggests that films take on a separate life after they’re done, Rene shrugs it off. “Their lives are often extremely dull.” Given the autobiographical thrust of Irma Vep, it’s easy to imagine Olivier Assayas agreeing with these sentiments and perhaps thinking an eight-episode series destined to sit around a streaming platform like HBO Max is the dullest possible outcome. The process itself, this episode suggests, is what delivers the artists involved to the places they want to go. The actual creation of art winds up being much more meaningful than whatever afterlife it has. For filmmakers, it’s usually just about looking ahead to the next thing.
One of the most striking aspects of the finale — and perhaps, I’d imagine, the most frustrating for some — is that it isn’t hugely interested in tidying up any of the messes it creates. There’s an entire subplot introduced about Mira zipping over to London for a super-secret morning meeting with a director and telling Zoe about it, which sets up the inevitable conflict when Mira, say, isn’t able to be found on set or when others find out who she’s meeting. But nothing comes of it, even though René’s “spies” have told him about it. Regina’s feelings for Mira, which were at issue for much of the series, are not only unaddressed, but the two never cross paths in the entire episode. There’s no follow-up with Laurie or Herman, who don’t make an appearance at all, despite Mira’s lingering feelings for Laurie and Herman’s stint as series director ending without a peep. That’s not how dramas are supposed to work.
But it may be how a set works. Gottfried was able to leave with a garden party and a raucous speech, but everyone else seems to evaporate, often without notice. Poor Gregory, the producer, winds up waiting in Mira’s hotel lobby with flowers, not knowing that she’d checked out the day before. When Gautier Parcheminerie learns that Mira didn’t turn up on his shoot for Dreamscape, he takes the news surprisingly well: They can’t lawyer up because suing a star of her caliber would be a bad look for the company, and so they’ll just have to turn the page. When Cynthia Keng asks René if she can get out of a crowded scene so she can leave a day early, we might expect him to explode with rage, but he’s basically fine with the idea. She then goes out and nails the choreography on her last take.
The effect Assayas is going for here seems closer to the strange ghostly qualities of his 2016 film Personal Shopper than the original Irma Vep, which is why there’s so much talk about “spirits” on set and more of an interest in exiting the series elegantly rather than emphatically. In Personal Shopper, Kristen Stewart plays a shopper for a supermodel who’s preoccupied with the death of her twin brother from a genetic defect a few months earlier. The film is partly about the effort to contact him through a medium, and those jarring spectral moments seem to feed into Irma Vep, too, which has been asking us to accept the presence of ghosts and the metaphysics of Mira herself slipping through walls and listening to intimate conversations.
“The Terrible Marriage” brings Stewart back for an extended cameo as Eamonn’s girlfriend, a pop singer who has reached that Taylor Swift stage where she’s playing to an audience of rapt 11-year-olds while perhaps wishing she could reach their parents. Again, we might expect fireworks after Eamonn is asked about Mira because they did have that one-night-stand together, but Assayas dodges that conflict, too, and finds them reconfirming their love for each other — and their desire to try again to have a baby. Mira looks mortified to witness their reunion, but she’s not devastated by it. Laurie was the bigger and more recent heartbreak for her, and she seems to be getting past that, too.
In the end, shooting The Vampires has given Mira exactly what she wanted, which is a contrast from the chaos that permanently engulfs Maggie Cheung in the original film. “I wouldn’t have been ready for it,” Mira tells René in their final scene together, referencing that upcoming project with a major director (who sounds very Terrence Malick-esque in his reclusiveness). She wanted to escape the noise and gossip of Hollywood, sort through her emotions after a bad break-up, and immerse herself in a role that could truly take her away from herself. The same power Irma Vep had over Maggie Cheung when she put on the catsuit transferred over to Mira, and she could become a character in a way that even the most committed method actors could not.
Is René Vidal’s The Vampires going to be a good eight-hour limited series? From the looks of it, maybe not. Perhaps the film students who love Mira but turn their nose up at Vidal’s recent work — “I’d rather see Mira in a catsuit than René Vidal’s entire oeuvre” — have the right idea. But Irma Vep is a window into how the people who might make a series like The Vampires (or the series Irma Vep) think about what they get out of the experience of making it. For them, it’s not going to be meaningful in the same way as it will be for those who watch it on their digital media players. They get what they need from it and move on to the next one.
• I wish there was more Carrie Brownstein as Zelda, who’s tartness as Mira’s agent gave the show a lot of comic punch. She has a natural deadpan bluntness that suits the role.
“The shows, they have this weird vibe. Half the audience wants to be there, and they’re screaming like I’m a K-Pop star. I don’t think they can hear the music they’re so loud. The other half is their parents or, even worse, their poor grandparents who would probably rather die than listen to my music.” It seems like every teen-pop idol has to feel this way eventually, which is how you get movies like Spring Breakers.
• “No genuine art stems from confidence. You should be grateful for the doubts.” Mira’s words to René seem genuine, not just an actress trying to reassure her neurotic director. One thing that bothers her about Herman — the thing that makes him a hack — is that he never seems to have a moment of self-doubt. It leads to shallow work.
• Regina’s new project actually sounds like an interesting movie. And her attitude about working without a budget is refreshing. (“That’s fine by me, and it’s the way it should be done.”)