For silent film aficionados, the name “Irma Vep” conjures up a very specific image of a sultry, mysterious woman in a black catsuit, slinking across the rooftops of Paris with a malevolent grin. She is the most memorable character in Les Vampires, a silent crime serial from France, the legacy of which is felt all over cinema. Director Olivier Assayas has a clear fascination with the series and the character of Irma in particular. He adapted it once before in 1996, with Maggie Cheung in the leading role as herself. This version, starring Alicia Vikander, is equal parts captivating and inconsistent. Its use of a present-day remake of Les Vampires to comment on modern Hollywood is where Irma Vep shines, and while Vikander has a magnetic presence as the starlet Mira, she isn’t quite enough to overcome the elements of the show that feel listless and muddled.
Mira (Vikander) is a Hollywood star on the rise – her latest film, a science fiction space epic, is an unexpected success, and after attending her last premiere event, she sets off to spend several weeks in France working on a remake of Les Vampires. She will play Irma Vep (which, letters rearranged Tom Riddle style, spells out “vampire”), the hypnotic muse of the criminal gang who would define the image of the cinematic vamp throughout the Roaring Twenties.
Mira brings a genuine enthusiasm for the role. She has done a tremendous amount of research and sees the character as a feminist figure but gets frustrated when her director focuses primarily on her sex appeal. Still, she also carries with her some serious emotional baggage. Her former assistant Laurie (Adria Arjona) has just married the director of Mira’s most recent project, and the sense of betrayal stems not just from a break of confidence but from the destruction of a romantic relationship. She tries to move on and stay professional, but she struggles with the loss, made all the more difficult by Laurie’s frequent reappearances in her life, as she relishes the emotional power over her former boss and lover (Their interactions, by the way, are more sensual and erotic than they have any right to be).
The strongest element of Irma Vep is its sly depiction of the inner workings of Hollywood. We are treated to plenty of behind-the-scenes footage on the chaotic set of the Les Vampires remake. It’s an incredibly clever way of introducing the influential serial to a new audience without actually figuring out how to make what is essentially a shot-for-shot remake work – something actors question as they try to find something to work with in its more dated and nonsensical plot points.
Vincent Macaigne plays the wildly unstable director Rene Vidal, an obvious stand-in for Irma Vep’s actual director, Olivier Assayas. He’s also the clearest example of a tendency for some male filmmakers to work through some of their own sexual predilections in their work. Here, it’s the iconic black catsuit, which Vidal repeatedly discusses with his therapist – for someone like Quentin Tarantino, for example, it’s the bare feet that keep popping up in his films.
But this is just one of the ways that Irma Vep satirizes Hollywood culture. Although Mira desires a career in film that allows her to work on projects she’s passionate about, after moonwalking into a mainstream sci-fi hit, she’s facing pressure from her agent to take on a role in the new Marvel film. That’s how this all often seems to work: You tell yourself that you’re going to do one for them and one for you, but the one for you is somehow always so much more difficult to make happen. Irma Vep also casts a wry gaze at the process by which creative types become insured by the studio: they assess a director’s mental health as an indicator of their ability to work on set, but if he actually admits to being treated for mental health issues, it triggers a red flag for the studio. They want you to be stable but just sturdy enough so that you can direct their project without costing them any additional money.
In these moments, Irma Vep seems to shine as it carefully examines the hypocrisy of the industry in which it exists without ever losing its sense of humor. Alicia Vikander is endearing in the lead role – as Mira and Irma Vep herself, it’s difficult to take her eyes off her. But the show struggles to maintain its vision and purpose throughout the entire series, and although each episode features strong highlights, it does suffer from feeling inconsistent at times. Still, it’s an interesting concept that it’s worth soldiering through the slower, more aimless parts to get to the moments that really stick with you.