If you’ve never heard of her, and if you suck at Scrabble and “Numbers and Letters”, know that Irma Vep is an anagram of “vampire”. Under this pseudonym, the criminal in a black velvet leotard has haunted episodic fiction for more than a century, from the serials that brought cinemagoers back to their neighborhood cinema every week, to the series that today threaten the very existence of cinema. .

It is therefore as a serial heroine that Irma Vep returns in 2022. Olivier Assayas, who had already revived her for a feature film in 1996 (she was then played by Maggie Cheung), places her this time in the eye of a cyclone in eight episodes (the first four of which have been shown). On a dizzying ternary rhythm, the filmmaker mixes – in the chronological order of the production of the images – abundant extracts from Les Vampires, the soap opera that Louis Feuillade directed in 1915; the adventures of filming a remake of The Vampires under the direction of René Vidal (Vincent Macaigne), author of French cinema whose biography and elocution have more than one point in common with those of Olivier Assayas; and, finally, the rushes of this production, faithful and luxurious, sound and color pastiche of the original.

According to the tribulations of René Vidal, which begin here with the arrival in Paris of Mira Harberg (Alicia Vikander), the Hollywood star who has agreed to take over the role of Irma Vep, Assayas stages in the form of fiction what , usually, is the material of the speech on the cinema. What is acting? Who does the author work for? To the usual trinity – art, producer, audience – Assayas adds the leader of a luxury multinational (Pascal Greggory) whose first concern is that René Vidal’s series does not hinder the next advertising campaign including Mira will be the “muse”. Whose film is it? Are the artistic collaborators (here, the costume designer to whom Jeanne Balibar lends her irresistible unreason) creators? To these questions, the author of Clean (2004) responds in a comedic tone, finding here a rhythm that had escaped him, sometimes barely, during his previous attempts.

Debauchery of means

We feel the filmmaker intoxicated by the debauchery of human and material resources made available to him. To the actors already mentioned, we must add Vincent Lacoste as a grumpy and petty young first; Lars Eidinger as a sacred drug addict and phallocrat; Dominique Reymond as a dominating psychoanalyst; Carrie Brownstein (seen in Portlandia, heard with the Sleater-Kinney group) as a Californian agent. The excerpts from the series directed by René Vidal take on the air of a blockbuster at times (the ball in the fifth episode is sumptuous) while, from palaces to sets, the film chronicle plays on the contrasts between the hyperluxury in which celebrities bathe and the bohemian (certainly comfortable) of the professionals of the French profession.

If we follow the social chronicle, we can also have fun with the game of resemblances – Mira’s love affairs are very similar to what the tabloids have reported from the love life of Kristen Stewart (Sils Maria, Personal Shopper). If you love the cinema, you will smile at the flowering of characters imitated from reality, from the old beau embodied by Hippolyte Girardot to the holy patience of the director of photography played by Antoine Reinartz.

It’s enough to distract, and from this point of view, the sponsor of Irma Vep, the HBO channel, did not ask for more. As we can imagine, that is not enough for Olivier Assayas. The uncertainties that agitate the microcosm gathered around the Vampires are both derisory and essential. There are the anxieties that plague cinema: what does an art weigh in the face of algorithms, in the face of multinationals that use cinema to sell something else? But above all, around the Macaigne-Vikander duo, Olivier Assayas works, with unprecedented candor, on the deep impulses that lead one to tell stories using the actors’ bodies and the other to bend (or not) to these requirements. This part of melancholy intimacy becomes more haunting, at times taking precedence over the comedy, over the episodes. There are four left to discover to find out if Irma Vep will be Olivier Assayas’ Sunset Boulevard (Twilight Boulevard) or his American Night.

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