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HBO's sly new 'Irma Vep' proves there's still no business like show business

In the miniseries <em>Irma Vep</em>, Alicia Vikander plays an actress who travels to Paris to star in a period recreation of <em>The Vampires</em>.
Carole Bethuel
In the miniseries Irma Vep, Alicia Vikander plays an actress who travels to Paris to star in a period recreation of The Vampires.

The new HBO miniseries Irma Vep is fascinating and unusual, but so is its lineage. It all started with a French silent movie serial called The Vampires, made in 1916. That serial was about an organization of criminals who terrorized Paris and called themselves the Vampires.

One of their leaders and inspirations was a woman named Irma Vep, who was evil and seductive, and often wore a form-fitting catsuit. After more than a century, I don't think I need to issue a spoiler alert ... but the letters in "Irma Vep," when rearranged, spell out the word "vampire."

In 1996, French director Olivier Assayas saluted this serial by making a film called Irma Vep, about the making of a new movie version of The Vampires. His film-within-a-film starred Hong Kong movie star Maggie Cheung as herself, coming to Paris to star as Irma Vep. It was part comedy, part satire of the film industry — and had a lot to say about both the impact of cinema and the conflicts between creativity and commerce.

The level of creativity in the 1996 Irma Vep movie was in itself dazzling. So why would that film's creator and director, more than 25 years later, feel the need to revisit his own story? Based on the first four episodes of HBO's Irma Vep provided for preview, the answer is clear: The movie industry has changed radically in the interim — but the types of people making those films have not. And a TV miniseries, with more time to pursue subplots and enrich characters, makes this new Irma Vep even better than the original.

Alicia Vikander, an Oscar winner for The Danish Girl and the star of Ex Machina, plays Mira, the actress imported to Paris to star in this new period recreation of The Vampires. Vincent Macaigne plays her director, René, whom she doesn't meet until she visits the set on her first day.

The HBO miniseries, like the Irma Vep film, tracks the difficulties involved in mounting a new version of The Vampires. Once again, as in the movie, excerpts from the vintage serial are shown alongside new footage — but this time, the recreations are more numerous and more ambitious, and more beautifully filmed.

It all looks lavish, and lovely. When Mira dons her catsuit, she moves and acts like a woman possessed – which turns out to be part of the story. Also expanded for this miniseries are the various subplots: actors who want meatier roles, producers with other motives or deals in play, and a Hollywood agent, played by Carrie Brownstein, who's pushing Mira to star in a new superhero movie, as a female Silver Surfer.

It's often very funny, but somehow it all seems believable. So do all the romantic conflicts connecting the on-camera stars and their supporting assistants and crew members. It's like a show-business version of Downton Abbey, with the upstairs and downstairs folks constantly shifting power roles.

Some scenes are playful and sexy. Others are flat-out funny, like when the director René insists his eight-part remake of The Vampires is a movie cut into little bits – not a TV series. There's very modern talk about global box-office blockbusters and intimacy coordinators — but all of it is presented not only with wit, but with genuine affection. Olivier Assayas was a French film critic before he became a filmmaker, and it's obvious he loves what he's doing. With this new Irma Vep series, I love what he's doing, too.

Copyright 2022 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Bianculli
David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.