Everything we know about the bold new Irma Vep by Olivier Assayas – Vogue

Alicia Vikander in the new Irma Vep by Olivier Assayas (Photo: Reproduction/Instagram)

Alicia Vikander in ‘Irma Vep’ by Olivier Assayas (Photo: Reproduction/Instagram)

When Irma Vep premiered at Cannes, originally as a film – written and directed by Olivier Assayas – was shown at Un Certain Regard, the festival’s sideshow for slightly less established filmmakers. The year was 1996, and Assayas, who had captivated critics with Cold wateryour chris de coeur teenager, two years before, had not yet started to work in The Sentimental Destinies (2000), a long period drama that kept getting delayed. So he did Irma Vep in the meantime, creating a story that reconciled the ghosts of cinema’s past with a looser, more experimental future. (It was also a comedy of sorts, a first in his career.)

Centered around a seductive performance by Maggie Cheung, Assayas’ shot in the dark was handsomely rewarded, and Irma Vep soon considered it an indelible addition to the canon of international independent cinema (not to mention the canon of films about films). However, his actual Cannes debut was low-key and quite late at night. “The movie wasn’t a big deal at the time, except in the Chinese press, because Maggie was a big star. So our screening was at midnight, and after the screening, 10 or 12 of us had dinner at the last pizzeria open in the harbor,” says Assayas with a laugh. “It must be one of my fondest memories of Cannes – it’s Cannes no nonsense. You’re there, you’re with your friends, you made a movie with no money, and you end up eating pizza.”

Needless to say, he will have a very different experience in May, when Irma Vep goes to Cannes for the second time – now, reimagined as an eight-part limited series with Alicia Vikander, Devon Ross, Carrie Brownstein, Adria Arjona and Tom Sturridge. (For those who can’t make it to the Croisette, don’t worry; episode 1 airs on HBO and HBO Max just a few weeks later on June 6). Assayas credits Thierry Frémaux, the festival’s longtime delegate general, for propagating the series. “You weren’t supposed to show anything that has to do with TV in Cannes,” he says, “but he loved it. He understood what that meant in terms of dealing with film history in a modern way.” (Irma Vep will be shown out of competition, in the “Cannes Premiere” section created last year.)

In this new version, as in the movie, a big movie star takes over to lead an adaptation of The vampires, Louis Feuillade’s silent serial of 1915-1916. (“Irma Vep” is a character, and her name a clever anagram.) At the helm of the production is the brilliant but unstable René Vidal, and as the chaotic filming proceeds, the lines between fact and fiction, actor and character , become dangerously confused. But unlike Cheung, who played a version of herself, Vikander plays Mira, an American actress who wants to change the direction of her career – and get rid of a recent tabloid scandal. “She’s in a place where she’s focused her whole life on jumping from town to town and from job to job — and she’s probably trying to figure out who she is away from this world, away from being on a movie set,” says Vikander. It’s a problem the actress (and the new mom) is well aware of. “Even though I have very solid friends, until meeting my husband and having my family who are now coming with me, there was a constant feeling of being a nomad, and it makes you feel like you have no roots anywhere,” she adds. “Emotionally, that can be quite difficult.”

Maggie Cheung in Irma Vep (Photo: Playback/Instagram)

Maggie Cheung in ‘Irma Vep’ from 1996 (Photo: Playback/Instagram)

Vikander and Assayas – both executive producers of the series, along with names like the creator of euphoriaSam Levinson, and playwright Jeremy O. Harris (who provided “American feedback on something that was very European,” as Assayas puts it) – met seven or more years ago when Assayas was doing the Personal Shopper 2016. “It was before they knew if the schedule [com Kristen Stewart] would work,” explains Vikander. In the end, he gave, “but I had the chance to have lunch with Oliver and we’ve become good friends ever since.”

“We happened to like each other a lot, so we met up and had a few drinks,” says Assayas. “It wasn’t obvious that this would turn into a collaboration – it didn’t have to. But all of a sudden, when I got the idea to develop Irma Vep, I said, ‘Oh, that would be really cool to do with Alicia’”.

Since you made Carlos, in the jackal, a 2010 miniseries about Venezuelan terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, Assayas was frequently approached about working in television again. The idea did not immediately appeal to him. “I’ve always preferred shorter formats, so I didn’t see myself as a series maker,” he says. But his agent, Stuart Manashil, encouraged him to rethink that. “He said, ‘But Olivier, you should be doing a series. You like to develop characters,’” recalls Assayas. “I said, ‘Yes, but I’m not comfortable telling someone else’s story.’ Then Manashil replied, “‘why don’t you base a series on one of your own movies?'”

This suggestion quickly led Assayas to Irma Vep, which he shot on a tight budget in just four weeks. “It kind of changed the way I shoot and even think about making a movie,” he says. “Then all of a sudden I said, ‘Yeah, that’s a cool idea, because I can work on aspects of Irma Vep that I haven’t had a chance to explore before.’” Given the free spirit of that film, his ambivalence about the series’ format now seemed like a good thing. “I watch very few, if any, shows, and I think it turned out to be very helpful, because I don’t know what the rules are,” he says. “I have no idea what people expect from a show. So I really had to reinvent the format for myself.” For Vikander, who worked for years in Swedish television but makes his English limited series debut with this project, it was like making a movie. “It was a long shoot, but it was also very enjoyable,” she says. “Maybe it’s one of the most beautiful sets I’ve ever been on.”

Creating a new female protagonist was important to Assayas from the beginning. “Mira is a very different character from Maggie, because Maggie was playing herself, basically,” he says. “But there is another layer in the Irma Vep original, which is that, in the end, we get married.” Assayas and Cheung got married in 1998, being together for three years. “Actually, that’s the main reason I didn’t use another Chinese actress,” he continues, “because I didn’t want to duplicate Maggie. It was impossible. I had to take the story somewhere else so it could be Maggie’s memory but also the opening of something new.” Some of that context really comes through in the series, mostly through the character of René. Once played by Jean-Pierre Léaud – whose favorite youthful appearance of Truffaut and Godard mostly spread in the late 1990s – the role was passed to the younger and stronger Vincent Macaigne, and, without giving away too much, his story had plenty of thing in common with that of Assayas. “When I had Jean-Pierre Léaud playing René Vidal, I wasn’t exactly making fun of him, but he was a filmmaker who was very far from me. He was experiencing strange areas of filmmaking without knowing exactly what he was doing,” says Assayas. “But 20 years later, I realize that I have become René, totally. When I made the original film, I didn’t identify myself. Now I get it. I did what I said I would.”

Vikander’s wardrobe — specifically, the catsuit she wears as Irma Vep — is also a departure from what happens in the 1996 film. Cheung’s sticky black latex, memorably sourced in a sex shop, has been supplanted by silk velvet. rich (and quite comfortable); something that comes close to what Paul Poiret did for Musidora, the original Irma Vep of The vampires, for more than a century. Louis Vuitton’s artistic director Nicolas Ghesquière, a longtime friend and collaborator of Vikander, helped with this shift. “I knew from both sides that they spoke to each other, saying, ‘Oh my God, I’m such a fan of this,’” she says. “I did a little match there.”

“I thought it was really interesting to bring someone with the status that Paul Poiret had at the time to work on something that didn’t look like the catsuit all female superheroes wear,” says Assayas of Ghesquière. “Every superhero movie has a leather catsuit and they all end up looking the same. What was once sexy becomes dull and boring now.” He tried a different approach to Vikander’s Irma Vep, leaning towards the mysterious. “We thought it was really interesting to create something that was very feminine but at the same time had something of a mystery,” says Assayas. “Irma Vep is not a superhero; she is more like a ghost.”

From Vikander’s point of view, they got it to look – and feel – just right. “The catsuit has an optional mask so you can only see the eyes,” she says, and wearing it “kind of makes you want to move in a certain way. I felt like I had embodied this creature. And that’s where the magic really happened.”

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