Irma Vep Premiere Review – “The Severed Head”

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Irma Vep Premiere Review - "The Severed Head"

Irma Vep premieres on June 6th on HBO and available to stream on HBO Max.

26 years ago, writer/director Olivier Assayas cast the incomparable Hong Kong actress Maggie Cheung (In the Mood for Love) as herself in Irma Vep, a satire on filmmaking and the decline of French cinema. An outstanding film about filmmaking that is still worth seeing to this day. Of course, over the past two decades, Hollywood and the state of celebrity and creative storytelling has changed quite a bit, especially as steamy television has replaced the film medium as the primary source of most global eyes. As such, Assayas has returned to his own creative library to remix Irma Vep as a slick and initially enigmatic eight-episode limited series starring Alicia Vikander.

In this Irma Vep, Vikander plays Mira, a contemporary and successful American actress who is filming in Paris a remake of the television series of the classic French silent film Les Vampires. Assayas updates the story with the rigors of modern production in a naturalistic, flying episode of Mira in the grind of press junkets, worldwide promotional tours and the hustle and bustle of awards season. Actress aside, there’s also the personal drama that accompanies the project’s creative actors, such as the show’s moody, anxious director, Rene (Vincent Macaigne), whose past antics make it impossible to reassure him — or the power — anymore moves between two co-stars who have broken up badly in the past and now pair up in this series. A planned sex scene between the two is used to wage war against each other. And then there’s Mira’s personal mess, which flares up unexpectedly when her former assistant and lover Laurie (Adria Arjona) shows up in Paris, newly engaged to the director of Mira’s last film. What the two once had together is clearly still unresolved, and the couple spontaneously rekindles practically every time they’re in a room together.

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Irma Vep is certainly a curiosity since it is an American production but with all the characteristics of a European production. It doesn’t follow the typical structure and format of US scripted dramas, with a relaxed approach to unfolding its stories. Assayas spends the pilot a lot more trying to capture the sense of Mira’s existence and translating that for us as authentically as possible, which isn’t a bad thing. Being immediately drawn into her highly planned life, led by publicists who take her from the event to the interview, avoids the typical business glamor for the realities of the job. For those interested in what it really feels like to live the life of an actor or be part of a production, Irma Vep is a fascinating and authentic immersion.

However, there isn’t much urgency to the plot. The Severed Head takes its time to introduce us to the main protagonists, establish tensions, who the allies are, and even a slice of the myriad nameless craftsmen and managers who make the strange world of big-budget storytelling possible. But Vikander is endlessly watchable as Mira, whether she’s navigating old lovers at a party or donning her costume for the first time and experimenting with sneaking around the office to get into the role. She is able to shift gears with incredible precision, making an everyday first meeting with her director interesting, and then effortlessly turns up the heat when Laurie enters her orbit.

How all the subtle bits will build into a larger story doesn’t seem like a huge priority for Assayas to share with us just yet, even by the end of the episode. There isn’t a huge cliffhanger or twist that forces us to stay for the next chapter. He relies on the little intrigues and squabbles to get that job done for him, and for most it could be a big challenge. Sure, the stage is set for conflict to come, but it’s simmering and probably far too quiet for many viewers used to more propulsive storytelling. But it’s so candid about how Assayas captures the world of story-making that he deserves at least a few more episodes to see where this new iteration of his story takes him.

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