A hapless, crack-addled actor scampers out of a second-story hospital window and shimmies down a drainpipe, clad only in cowboy boots, gown, and fur coat—mere moments after fortuitously waking from a coma wrought by an auto-erotic asphyxiation gone wrong in his hotel closet. A barking dog menaces the morning light as the actor scrambles over walls, falling over himself as he makes his wild-eyed escape. He unsuccessfully manhandles a passing car and stumbles down the road.
How far would you follow desperation and desire? Where exactly will it get you?
Olivier Assayas plumbs the depths of both in his eight-hour 2022 series (wait, no, “serial film”) Irma Vep. Technically, it’s a remake about a remake of a film about a remake of Louis Feuillade’s epic 1915-16 silent serial, Les Vampires. Heartbreakingly, it’s about the consequences of trying to transcend reality by using filmmaking as a vehicle to touch the light. Along the way, we meet many wounded characters besotten with desire, scattered in stages of their own Icarus arcs, as they scramble to make magic like a fucked-up Muppet company. The series uses a nesting-doll structure to actually effect magic, to achieve time travel, and to transgress reality by making not just mere “images about images,” but images that probe wounds and release the evil spirit of the character Irma Vep into light.
The entire project is very self-referential, extremely personal, and arguably entirely about Assayas himself. The son of filmmaker Jacques Rémy, Assayas began his career as a writer for Cahiers du Cinéma, but eventually found international fame and cult success with his 1996 film version of Irma Vep. In it, Hong Kong film legend Maggie Cheung plays herself playing Les Vampires star Irma Vep. Cheung and Assayas had a marriage born out of this collaboration, but that marriage dissolved.
For Assayas, his metatextual exercises purposefully hit very close to home; in interviews promoting the series, he admits:
I became part of my own film. So if I am doing a film using as raw material my own film and my own experience of making it, there are two different layers. One layer is the actual filmmaking and the character of Irma Vep. And the other layer is obviously how the film changed my life, how I got married and then separated with Maggie. That was not part of the plan.
Ok, sure, so with the death of the author comes the birth of the reader, but what happens when the cinematic auteur refuses to die? Why heal when you can nurse the wound? In some ways, the act of filmmaking promises to be therapeutic, allowing Assayas to overcome boundaries of time and space to create a surreality in which past and present intermingle, a séance in which he’s able to gather an ensemble to grapple with loss. From the same Los Angeles Times interview:
…when I had to go back to dealing with “Irma Vep,” it was also about scratching old wounds. I was partly aware that Maggie was still in my thoughts—there was something unresolved in terms of my relationship with Maggie. It was happy while it lasted and then it was gone.
In the 1996 film, the director of the film-within-the-film, René Vidal, is played by Jean-Pierre Léaud. In the 2022 series, the director of the series-within-the-series, René Vidal, is played by Vincent Macaigne, who brings a shambling sad-dog aspect to René as opposed to Léaud’s tweed-coat neuroses. Macaigne also has several useful scenes with a therapist in the series, including one where he talks about encountering the ghost of his ex-wife, Jade Lee (Vivian Wu), and how he has second thoughts about continuing the film:
I believed that making this long, eight-hour film would bring some sort of redemption. But there is no redemption. It just opened up old wounds…ghosts have very little to do with the dead. They’re more about what’s dead inside us. More about the past that lives inside us.
René desires redemption with Jade Lee—and the past living inside himself—and chases an absurd artistic feat to achieve it. However, an earlier scene with the therapist reveals another motivating and deeply seeded desire: René’s fixations with catsuits, leather in particular.
René: As a teenager, I was obsessed with Diana Rigg, the actress from The Avengers.
Therapist: Did you pleasure yourself thinking about her?
René: It wasn’t exactly Diana Rigg. Her character was called Emma Peel. And she did wear leather catsuits and boots.
Therapist: Did the catsuit and boots have an effect on you?
René: Yes! Yes, yes. There were scenes, when she was abducted and tied up…
Therapist: You had fantasies?
Therapist: And you would masturbate?
René: Well…I have the greatest respect for Diana Rigg. She died recently. I thought she was an exceptional actress. It wasn’t so much Diana Rigg. The fantasy was more about her character.
Therapist: And those fantasies were the basis for your auto-erotic activities.
René: Yes, that’s exactly it.
While Macaigne’s René in the series typically exudes sullen neuroses, he notably lights up with joy and excitement as he describes his fantasies and admits to the catsuit and boots’ effects on him. Léaud’s René in the film, while less exuberant, likewise admits the motivating power of the catsuit to Maggie Cheung.
Maggie: But why did you want to [make the film] in the first place?
René: *inhales, exhales* You know, again, I have this idea of you in this part, in this costume. I thought it was very exciting. No. It is like a fantasy.
Maggie: That’s desire and I think it’s okay, because that’s what we make movies with.
In Deceit, Desire, and the Novel, René Girard (an actual historian and literary critic, a René outside of the Irma Vep Multiverse) describes the motivating force that compels a subject to pursue an object as mimetic desire. He argues that none of us has an original impulse; everything is controlled by a mediator. So while Assayas may pursue making a film, there is a third node in the relationship, which could be his ex-wife Maggie Cheung or even his base desires inspired by his teenage obsessions. The mediator could even be Feuillade himself, a master filmmaker in Assayas’ eyes.
The example Girard opens with is Don Quixote, who pursues chivalry because of his love of Amadis, “one of the most perfect knight errants.” Girard points to the devotion of a disciple. For example, Christians pursue ends to become more Christ-like. In this way, even while members of the fictional film crew argue that Feuillade was a hack and a drag, others argue that his work was like serialized novels, with poetry to it. The aspect Assayas is especially drawn to in Feuillade’s filmmaking is the subversive, gleefully transgressive quality. The character of Irma Vep (originally played by Musidora in the original 1915-16 serial film) and her gang of vampires are unabashedly bad. In this way, Assayas pursues film to become more Feuillade-like, more attuned to the ghosts and akin to the outlaws, the bad guys and girls of cinema.
“The Severed Head,” the first episode of Feuillade’s Les Vampires, ends with a figure in a dark bodysuit shimmying down a drainpipe. While this shadowy figure has much more guile and grace than the hapless, crack-addled actor that opens this essay (a scene from the newer series’ sixth episode, “The Thunder Master”), they are both cut from the same cloth. In fact, it is that very actor, Gottfried (Lars Eidinger), who laments the loss of danger in cinema during his wrap champagne toast:
What brought me to cinema was a sense of freedom. There were no boundaries. Cinema was the wild west, you know? You may forget it at times, but you know. Why are we making movies now?…Who’s willing to put their life 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? I try to keep the crazy alive by being such a pain in the ass! I mean, some of you hate me for that, but…yeah. Maybe you’re right! Maybe you are right. The industry has taken over cinema. Lawyers, big data, 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.
While this monologue is replete with images Assayas loves (chaos, adventure, mayhem, freedom, etc.), it also contains stark call-outs to his perceived corporate failures in cinema (lawyers, big data, franchises, platforms, etc.). These heroes and villains are all echoes of themes Assayas has written about in his criticism and explored in his filmmaking for years. In this way, Irma Vep acts as an encyclopedic encapsulation of his career obsessions.
Assayas represents the hero camp of chaos and mayhem with a shout-out to Kenneth Anger in the same critical sixth episode of the current series. Assayas wrote a book about Kenneth Anger’s work, emphasizing and celebrating dark magic and ritual in film. The shout-out is delivered by the precocious Regina, a whip-smart assistant as well as up-and-coming director played by model Devon Ross. When René goes AWOL on a shoot, Regina is given a chance to fill in for an episode while another director arrives. She obsesses over Kenneth Anger’s work all night long before the shoot and shows clips to her boss, Mira (a superstar actor in the mold of Kristen Stewart, played by Alicia Vikander).
Assailing the villain camp of franchises and platforms, the 1996 version takes direct aim at Tim Burton’s Batman Returns. While Maggie Cheung and the French costume designer Zoé (Nathalie Richard) note René’s desire to model the catsuit directly after Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman, they both muse to each other about their low opinion of the film in a café.
Zoé: You liked it?
Zoé: I thought it was completely crap. I just went because René was mad. He said to me, “You have to go there to understand the film.” But I think it is a movie for the crowds.
Maggie: The first one was bad enough, right?
Maggie: I don’t know why they make three.
Zoé: Yes, it’s true, but I like Catwoman, she’s nice…I mean, I don’t like American films. No, really.
Maggie: Right, I know what you mean.
Zoé: Yes, I think everything is too much decoration, too much money.
This would be one of Assayas’ major contentions with Tim Burton’s filmmaking: that it’s an empty mannerism in the service of a franchise, a representative of “le cinéma publicitaire,” an aesthetic “brazenly derived from commercials, in thrall to advertising.” Try as it might, it is not actually dangerous. So, Maggie gets the latex costume inspired by Catwoman, but it’s in service of a messy, chaotic, decidedly uncommercial endeavor.
Mira (who plays Irma in the 2022 series) also gets a catsuit, but hers is made of black velvet. It doesn’t make the same sound as Maggie’s squeaky latex, and serves Irma’s inky prowl much better. Ironically, velvet absorbs all light, but its purpose is to help Mira become Irma, or let Irma inhabit Mira, thus transcending the limits of human existence and transforming the body into pure light. In the 1915-16 serial, Musidora’s Irma also wore a soft catsuit; the costume was extremely provocative for the era. All Irma suits fully embrace the female body, and as much as they obscure the wearer’s identity, they’re also fully revealing.
The softness of Mira’s suit especially comes into play during the sixth episode. As Mira becomes Irma and Irma becomes Mira, they find that they can slip through walls. This is played as an actuality, not just a metaphor. Mira can slip in and out of rooms. While we have seen “ghosts” so far, most of the film’s logic hews to everyday experience. Limits are limits, but once the creative process begins to percolate, the laws of the universe begin to bend in unexpected ways. Past is present as present layers over and spills into the past, like a crack-addled actor fleeing through his hospital window.
Is it true, with great power comes great responsibility? Pfft. Mira uses her power to skulk in ex-lovers’ bedrooms and hide and spy on intimate moments. Girard talks about external and internal mediation. External mediation is the kind the subject would announce from the rooftops, the love of a disciple toward a mediator whose separation via time, space, and spirituality guarantee that they would never intersect. For example, an artist might proudly display, laud, and pursue their influences, like Assayas does with Feuillade or Anger. On the other hand, internal mediation occurs when a subject’s “sphere of possibility” could feasibly intersect with that of its mediator. According to Girard, “the hero of internal mediation, far from boasting of his efforts to imitate, carefully hides them.”
Mira’s “spheres of possibility” significantly overlap with her ex-assistant and -lover, Laurie, played by Adria Arjona. The two are toxic and wildly attracted to each other. Mira, the star, treated Laurie poorly as her assistant, but exploited her star power to force an affair with her, even as Mira publicly maintained star-couple status with Eamonn (Tom Sturridge). Laurie ends up marrying Herman (Byron Bowers), the director of Mira’s superhero film Doomsday, a surprise hit. Laurie keeps the wedding a surprise to Mira and returns with the upper hand: flush with bags from high-end retail, independent of Mira’s domain, and able to turn the tables in a sadistic game of emotional revenge. In the opening episode, Laurie most fully exacts her newfound power on the set of Irma Vep, insisting that Mira flaunt the catsuit, sit and spread her legs slightly, and tell her that she wants her back. Please.
While Mira does not hide the impact of Laurie on her life, nor the desire she has for her, she uses her power as Irma to creep into private, personal spaces and steal a precious gift from Laurie—an obscenely expensive designer necklace that was a gift from Herman. It is this careful hiding that allows Mira to pursue her desire, ultimately to act on her resentment (or, as Girard states it, ressentiment) of Laurie, her internal mediator. The problem is that this acting out does little to nothing for Mira. The act of stealing leaves her cold, and Mira begins the process of decoupling with Irma.
What happens when we attempt to touch the light? Ultimately, we fall. Irma Vep is littered with all stripes of Icarus, fallen from all manner of stations, or rising with the surge of possibility. I love the wounded cabinet of Irma Vep’s extended universe. While films about filmmaking make easy comparisons to Truffaut’s Day for Night, Assayas’ work is doing something more sinister and beautiful. It takes a lot of audacity to claim the space of an artist in the world, and “boring, dark, dull times” will inevitably attempt to squash the mayhem and chaos out of creation. It is no wonder that the struggling soul might attempt to time travel, to transgress boundaries, to search for a world of pure light.