In 1996 – more than a quarter of a century ago – French director Olivier Assayas came to the Cannes Film Festival with Irma Vep, a cerebral puzzle-play about early vampire movies. As he says now, it changed his life.
Irma Vep is a film about cinema in which a director, played by New Wave legend Jean-Pierre Leaud, attempts to make a new version of a 1915 silent film by Louis Feuillade titled The vampires. Feuillade’s title vampires are jewel thieves; the anagrammatic Irma Vep is a feisty villainess in a rather splendid black catsuit. In the 1996 film version of Assayas, she is played by Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung.
Irma Vep changed Assayas’ life in two ways. First, his critical success places him in the forefront of French authors. Second, he married Maggie Cheung. They divorced five years later but, as he says, Irma Vep never left him. Now he’s added another layer to the story: an eight-part series in which a comedic neurotic director, portrayed by Vincent Macaigne as a sly, neurotic caricature of Assayas himself, makes a new film based on both on Feuillade’s original adventure and his own. earlier version of the story.
I met Olivier Assayas at the last Cannes Film Festival, where he presented several episodes of the new series. We sit on deckchairs on the edge of the lapping of the Mediterranean, a Cannes cliché which, in reality, is rarely encountered. So why did he do it? “When I was writing the original Irma Vep, which I wrote very quickly and more like a stream of consciousness than anything, I was writing a fantastic character,” he says. “Two years later I was married to this fantastic character. And a few years later he was gone. I thought there was something for an interesting movie there.
The new series, mixing fiction and its own history, is therefore less a story than a hall of mirrors. Among a cast of new or revamped characters, it’s peppered with clips from the old silent film as well as references to Cheung, their marriage, and his own pain at their separation. She even appears as a kind of ghost, played by another Chinese actress (Fala Chen). “I felt like I couldn’t honestly handle Irma Vep or use it in a new story if I erased that part of it,” says Assayas. “All of a sudden, I was drawn into the very story I had imagined. But I’ve always been fascinated by how you can mix imagination and reality in art.
At the center of her reimagining is a character called Mira, played by Alicia Vikander. While Maggie Cheung played a version of herself, an unknown Hong Kong actress on the high seas in the French film industry, Mira is a Hollywood star who chafes at fame and the demands of her captivating LA agent. . “Maggie was really a fish out of water character,” says Assayas. “When I started writing the new version, I knew the conversation between the director and the actress would be a much bigger part of the story – and Mira’s character would be a lot more creative and involved.”
Vikander says Assayas included little hints about her own real life, but in a way only she would recognize. She doesn’t share Mira’s annoyances with her job or her life, but she acknowledges them. “I think you sometimes feel lonely. Maybe that’s something I worked against from the start, because for me it was always very important to have one foot in a very secure private sphere,” she says.
“But if you really love your job and it’s really your priority, in this industry you will move from one job to another, you will change countries, you will change a whole constellation of people that you see and with whom you hang in there – and I guess the roots will start to fade if you don’t hold on to them. I think she’s both in that age and in that slice of her career where she asks, “Who am I now?” When am I myself?”