What Is Cinema? Olivier Assayas on “Irma Vep”

By Beatrice Loayza

“Who? What? Where? When?” reads one of the advertisements for Louis Feuillade’s 1915 serial Les vampires. Above these words, a question mark cradles the masked head of one Irma Vep (incarnated onscreen by the legendary music-hall performer Musidora), with only her twinkling eyes in view, pulling us deeper into her mystery. Decades later, in Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep (1996),Maggie Cheung—playing an alternate-universe version of herself who is summoned to Paris to play Irma Vep in a flashy, internationally co-produced remake of Les vampires—dons a mystique-conferring catsuit to re-embody Musidora’s criminal mastermind, only to be ultimately fired from the role when the production collapses. Yet even as this first iteration of Irma Vep suggests that the cinema of today lacks the spark to create a comparably seductive spectacle, it also achieves a sense of wonder and fascination from the presence of Cheung: an outsider perched atop Parisian rooftops, a woman in crisis who attains a kind of self-knowledge through the role’s requisite self-abandon. Cheung proves that Irma Vep is not merely a character one plays, but a spirit one inhabits like a fever dream. 

Assayas’ latest effort, an eight-part HBO remake of his masterpiece about a failed remake, performs a similar resurrection—after all, it was only amatter of who, what, where, when Irma Vep would rise again. In the new Irma Vep, the events of the 1996 film are restaged and readjusted for the streaming era, the world of superhero movie franchises, iPhones, and prestige television. Standing in for the parafictional Cheung is Mira (Alicia Vikander), a hyper-professional American movie star whose claim to fame are her Marvel-esque Doomsday movies, gigs she’s not exactly proud of. Hoping to artistically distance herself from her blockbuster meal ticket, Mira heads to Paris to star as Irma Vep in a series-length remake of Les vampires that is being directed by the eccentric (and wildly unstable) René Vidal (Vincent Macaigne, replacing Jean-Pierre Léaud from the original film).

Invoking not only his original Irma Vep but also the “making-of” touchstones of Truffaut’s La nuit américaine (1973) and Fassbinder’s Beware of a Holy Whore (1971),Assayas here summons a similar kind of film set-within-the-film intrigue that, this time, is informed by contemporary discourses around issues of consent, onscreen sensuality, and narrative intent. For example, Edmond (Vincent Lacoste), the actor playing the putative hero of Les vampires, constantly quarrels with René about the motivations of his character: woefully (if hilariously) oblivious to the project’s deliberate obliqueness and emphasis on atmosphere, he is unaware that his protagonist is supposed to be impotent and underdeveloped. Later in the series, a faction of the cast and crew confront René over a racy scene between an unconscious Irma Vep and her lascivious nemesis, Moreno, arguing that the moment victimizes and demeans a feminist icon. When asked to weigh in, however, Mira disagrees with the rebels: the point of the scene is not about ensuring a woman’s empowerment, but creating an atmosphere of hot-and-bothered sensuality.   

Off set, meanwhile, love triangles multiply and unravel as fraught power dynamics and inner demons conspire to threaten the completion of the production. Mira, still in the grips of erotic obsession with her former assistant, Laurie (Adria Arjona), who is now shacked up with Mira’s ex-director, strikes up a tenuous flirtation with costume designer Zoe (Jeanne Balibar); simultaneously, the relationship between Mira and her current assistant, shrewd aspiring filmmaker Regina (Devon Ross), threatens to proceed along similarly charged (and potentially abusive) lines as that of her previous amour fou. Comparably banal yet potentially more nefarious than Mira’s romantic entanglements are the machinations of the financiers, producers, and agents who hover around the periphery of the production, seeing nothing but legal liabilities and profit-making opportunities in the art and the artists they manage. René, for his part, struggles to mount his fastidiously conceived version of Les vampires not only under the long shadow of Feuillade’s original, but also that of his own attempted remake decades prior—as well as the memory of his ex-wife, Jade Lee (Vivian Wu), a conspicuous reference to Cheung, Assayas’ former partner.  

As shooting of René’s Les vampires unfolds, Assayas includes long stretches of the original black-and-white serial as if to encourage us to compare it to René’s hyperstylized recreations (which often come together through laughably undignified means). Occasionally, Assayas assumes the look and mode of René’s filmmaking to restage significant moments in the production history of Les vampires using the same cast: René as Feuillade, Mira as Musidora, etc. With a bit of explanatory dialogue courtesy of René’s discussions with Mira, these suspensions of the series’ present-day reality provide windows into the anarchic spirit that animated early film, unbeholden as it was to any kind of artistic blueprint or standard of conduct—whatever movie magic came of those lawless, pioneering sets was a product of improvisation, reckless ingenuity, and fate. 

Where Feuillade’s Les vampires thus took shape in the film-industry equivalent of the Wild West, Assayas’ pair of metacinematic descendants from it emerged from an industry that has been transformed by digitization, globalization, and new channels of distribution. Assayas’ films consistently exult the vertiginous qualities of modern life, where identities and personal convictions are thrown in crisis by the instruments of global interconnectivity—market forces, surveillance technologies, social media. With both versions of Irma Vep,Assayas looks tothe ruptures between the production processes and moviemaking cultures of then and now to create comedy and tragedy about what it means to want to continue the fight, the folly, that is making movies, continuously posing that vital and unanswerable question—“What is cinema?”—in order to recalibrate our perception of what it could be and what it’s not amid such endless reinvention and recontextualization. 

While the crackling intrusion of Sonic Youth into the new Irma Vep, as well as a surreal departure from the series’ dominant mode of realism, mirrors the 1996 original’sdizzying breaks from reality, the parameters of multi-episode serialization have allowed Assayas to not only replicate but also expand the canvas of his tale, adding more sprawling interpersonal dramas and layers of self-reflexivity. As the production nears its end, René prepares to return to his family life outside the cinema and Mira signs on to her next project, where she will play the coveted lead role in the new film by some Quentin Tarantino– or Terrence Malick–adjacent American auteur. These cycles continue, and Assayas emphasizes their flattened progression, keeping the show’s final moments at a low frequency of quiet resignation and wizened acceptance. Yet moments of grace and mystery still float to the surface. On Mira’s last night in Paris, Zoe has one final request: that Mira dance for her as she has done repeatedly, mesmerizingly, throughout the series as both herself and Irma Vep. She does, and there is no explaining nor theorizing it. The dance captivates outside of time. 

Cinema Scope: When did you first encounter Les vampires? 

Olivier Assayas: When I was younger, I saw some of it at the Cinémathèque française, which was the only place where you could see it at the time. We’re talking about the Neanderthal period…

Scope: So, the ’80s?

Assayas: The late ’70s and early ’80s. Les vampires was saved by Henri Langlois, who found a negative of the film in the late ’40s and had it copied. That was the only existing print. The original nitrate print is obviously unusable. I’m saying this so you get a sense of how rarely it was screened at the time. Occasionally, as a gift to the audience, Langlois would show an episode here and there, so that’s how I saw one or two of them. Years later, when I had started making films, I was asked to program an evening of movies. I chose a Bresson, Maurice Pialat’s L’amour existe (1960),and two episodes from Les vampires. I was amazed at how good it was. 

Scope: And you’re clearly still fascinated by it. Enough that you’d want to return to it decades later after already making one film in conversation with it.      

Assayas: I love how it is both innocent and erotic, which makes for a unique blend in the history of cinema. And it was made with the enthusiasm and craziness that drove early filmmaking, which is something I’ve always felt nostalgic for. I would have loved to have been a filmmaker when it all started. I would have also loved to be making movies in the early ’60s, when independent films suddenly appeared and things opened up. There was no limit to what you could do. But I suppose I’ve always been fascinated by serials, including literature. I wrote my master’s thesis on French science-fiction serial novels, which were originally published for very cheap and later rediscovered and championed. So, Les vampires has always occupied a very special place in my imagination. When I made Irma Vep, I realized that not only did Les vampires fascinate me as a cinematic event, but there was also something more to it that spoke directly to me, something that was a part of me. Making the first Irma Vep was like undergoing psychoanalysis, you know? Stuff that I had repressed and that I had never used in my movies came to the surface. 

Scope: In Irma Vep,René Vidal also talks about the seductive force of Les vampires—a primitive kind of magic to seeing all these things being captured on film for the first time. 

Assayas: Yes, there’s a beauty to it. Every time those filmmakers wanted to shoot something, or represent this or that idea or sentiment, they had to figure out how to do it for themselves. There was no canon, no preconceived sense of cinematic language. Everything was in the process of being defined. This idea of magic was literal, too—many perceived that cinema was real magic! It’s very hard for us to put ourselves in the context of people who saw moving images for the first time, this idea of seeing reality reproduced as something simultaneously extremely realistic and dreamlike. The black-and-white images bring that surreal quality: it’s reality, but it’s not reality. It’s something else. 

Scope: René struggles to capture some of that magic with his version of Les vampires, but I think he realizes it’s impossible. Can the cinema of today feel fresh in the same way it did back then? Can it be magical?

Assayas: It’s maybe impossible to go back to that state of innocence that drove silent filmmaking. The spirit is sometimes revived, but it can’t be recreated. It would be folly to think so. Occasionally, you have filmmakers who come on the scene and reinvent everything. The French New Wave expanded the limits of what was doable. You have the American experimental filmmakers—Kenneth Anger, Andy Warhol, Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas—and also John Cassavetes. They started from scratch, in a sense, or maybe they restarted from scratch. It’s possible to rewind, to forget the rules and what it is you’re supposed to do or not do. But it doesn’t happen much.

Scope: Let’s talk about the show within the show. René’s version of Les vampires is sometimes quite beautiful and effective, especially when Alicia Vikander dances. Sometimes it’s silly, like when you see the actors run around trying to do the same ridiculous things that Feuillade’s actors had to do. People throw themselves down steps and cling to moving vehicles.

Assayas: This René Vidal has the same problem as the René Vidal played by Jean-Pierre Léaud in the original Irma Vep: he’s taken on a project that is basically undoable. Léaud’s character instantly realizes it doesn’t work, which paralyzes him early on. For him, the only solution is to destroy his own material. In this version, it’s a different era, a different moment.

Scope: The era of streaming.

Assayas: That’s right. René Vidal has gotten himself into a mess because he’s agreed to do a series, which by today’s standards means something that involves much more narrative than anything Louis Feuillade ever did. So, it does at times end up being pure comedy. However, René is asking himself the right questions. He realizes he’s not working within the right framework to accomplish whatever it is he hopes to accomplish. 

Scope: At one point René insists he’s making a film, not a television series. Do you feel the same way about Irma Vep? 

Assayas: Yes, of course that’s how I feel! I couldn’t have made a movie of this length and of this nature for a theatrical setting. The financiers know that people aren’t going to sit there and watch an eight-hour story. I knew this had to be financed by TV people, so I knew I had to agree to the narrative framework of a series. In that sense, in terms of narrative, some of it is more TV-like, but it’s ultimately one film with an arc and a beginning, middle, and end. The way I shot it was no different from the way I shot my other films. I did it with the same crew and many of the same actors I’ve worked with in the past, and I did it with the same spirit and energy. There are some challenges that are unique. Because it’s a series, we had to work super-fast, which was difficult because I wanted to keep my standards and style. We were given about nine or ten days per episode, which was tough. On the other hand, budget wasn’t as much of a concern, and I was given the freedom to invent this crazy story and have this weird mix of crazy actors. And there weren’t any issues about length. With movies, there’s always a problem with the money and the length. We finished under budget!   

Scope: Speaking of crazy actors, Lars Eidinger is incredible as Gottfried. He’s so magnetic and chaotic—but, of course, he’s also a crack addict! He seems like a character that’s been plucked out of time, and like he’d belong on one of Feuillade’s wild sets. 

Assayas: For me, he comes out of a Fassbinder movie. I’ve made two movies with Lars, and this is our third time working together. Previously, he’s played much more serious characters for me; it turned out he was holding back. At that point I had never seen him on stage, though he’s a big star in German theatre and has worked with big-deal directors like Thomas Ostermeier. Then I saw him play Richard III, and I was shocked. He spoke directly to the audience, walked through the aisles, threw stuff around. He was crazy. That’s when I realized there was another dimension to him that I wanted to use. Gottfried is an homage to the craziness of ’70s independent cinema, specifically Fassbinder, Werner Schroeter, and that entire generation of German filmmakers who were hugely influential for me when I started making movies. Cinema was part of the counterculture in many ways back then, so Gottfried embodies that craziness, that irresponsibility. 

Scope: In his incredible send-off speech, he talks about filmmakers once being like rock ’n’ roll stars. Rock music and punk has always had a kind of spiritual influence on your work.  

Assayas: Of course, but I think it has become too clean and polished. Rock ’n’ roll used to be much rawer when it was not officially part of the industry. As much as I’m a fan of indie rock, I can’t help but notice that it’s everywhere. You go to a shoe store and they’re playing indie rock. Your plane lands, you hear indie rock. Rock music has become a sort of wallpaper for our times.

Scope: In the first Irma Vep there’s that incredible Sonic Youth needle drop, and here you have Thurston Moore writing some of the score. 

Assayas: I’m so fond of Thurston Moore, who I consider one of the few people who has kept intact the spirit of experimentation, the wildness, of rock music. It’s come at a price for him. It means at once carrying the soul of what indie rock should be, and remaining a marginal figure.

Scope: What was the music you used for the scenes from the original Les vampires?It sounds more modern than the score in the version I’ve seen.  

Assayas: We used the score from the Gaumont restoration. The original was done electronically, and the sound was very poor, so we reorchestrated it with real instruments, which took a great deal of time. 

Scope: When I first found out that Alicia Vikander would be playing Irma Vep—or, rather, the actress playing Irma Vep—I wasn’t a fan of the idea. I couldn’t help but think of her blank-faced robot character in Ex Machina (2014),who is like the opposite of Musidora. But as the series continued, I realized she has always had this incredible physicality—no wonder she was cast in Tomb Raider (2018). Did you see that? 

Assayas: Yes! Though I knew Alicia before Tomb Raider,and I also knew that she had been trained as a dancer. I wouldn’t have made Irma Vep without her. I knew I needed her for the character of Irma Vep, who has a certain candour, purity, and sense of humour. She also needed to be played by someone who can experiment with her body. That’s why I had Alicia in mind, because I sensed she could do it based on her earlier films, including Tomb Raider. 

Alicia is also very independent and opinionated. She has a very clear idea of what she’s doing and how she’s doing it. At the same time, she’s never really had the opportunity to simply let go and push things as far as possible. This is similar to what happened with Kristen Stewart. When I first worked with Kristen, and then Alicia, I was working with an actress who had never really had the freedom to invent and create something new with their performance. To me, they are not simply actresses: they are important parts of the film’s creative process. They need to have the space for it, so I encourage and push them. They can go as far as they want. They can go off script. Whatever they want, so long as they enjoy it. 

Scope: Your films often touch on the finer, practical details of the creative industries they depict. Here, there’s a marked difference between Hollywood and the French film industry: we see the French crew working with paper scripts, there’s a desire to be frugal, and you have wacky people like René Vidal given free rein—sort of. To the Americans over in Los Angeles, Mira’s commitment to finishing Les vampires doesn’t make any sense. 

Assayas: In France, there is less control by the industry. It’s not a matter of the US being this way and Europe being that way. For me it’s a question of freedom, because when you have freedom, it’s cinema. This is the answer to all the questions about what makes something a series or a film. When you have something that’s highly controlled by the industry, it’s not cinema: it’s an industry product. With Irma Vep,I’m trying to portray characters who are struggling with these difficult questions and contradictions. They are trying to be as free as they can, and make the best possible use of that freedom, but they are still working for an industry with commercial interests. Today, it’s very difficult to define with any certainty what cinema is and what it’s not. The boundaries are moving and we are undergoing a process of transformation that will redefine the meaning of cinema. We have no idea where we’ll end up.

Scope: In episode five, “Hypnotic Eyes,” some members of the cast and crew are scandalized about a scene in which Irma Vep is touched by the villain, Moreno, while she’s unconscious. There are also some humorous back-and-forths about shooting a sex scene with an intimacy coordinator. Do these attitudes and new practices—which seem to be less a matter of real principles than one of insurance coverage and legal liability—play into this idea of industry control eradicating the sense of adventure from cinema?  

Assayas: Movies, like rock ’n’ roll music, were once areas where morality was not a factor. Now, morals are involved. I’m not sure what to think of it. I do agree with a lot of it, but I also think it ends up affecting the balance of cinema. My perception of what cinema is has always had to do with the subconscious—meaning, cinema allows your subconscious to speak. This also means, when you’re making movies, you don’t completely know what you’re doing. Now you absolutely have to know what you’re doing and you have to be careful about it, too, because you might have to explain yourself and justify why you’ve done something this or that way. 

I had never really asked myself those questions before, and though I’m okay with asking myself them now, I wonder whether they’re affecting the process. I don’t think I tackle these issues seriously in Irma Vep, but I do turn them into comedy. Besides, it’s not like we’re seeing someone like Pasolini make Salò (1975). Pasolini went all the way: he made something that was truly dangerous, something that likely wouldn’t be possible to make anymore. I’m just being ironic.

Scope: The idea of watching a classic like Les vampires on an iPhone or a tablet is considered a great sacrilege to many of us cinephiles, so it felt oddly provocative to see the characters in Irma Vep watch so many scenes from it on their tiny screens. 

Assayas: Sometimes it’s the only option! Sometimes the film isn’t around, or maybe you don’t want to pay a fortune to access the restored Blu-ray that’s part of a boxset or whatever. It all costs money. Here, the big difference is that these people are working, so you can’t just have them watch a 35mm print. Actually, Les vampires happens to be public domain. When I was writing the screenplay, I used Wikipedia to refer back to certain scenes. The links to all the episodes are on there. They’re dreadful quality, but if I wanted to check on a detail, or a title, I was able to do it instantly. I didn’t have to go through the whole process of having to set up a screen next to me. Obviously, I don’t watch movies on my iPhone, and I almost never watch them on my tablet or my computer. I prefer a big screen or a projector. You can use your telephone as a sort of notebook, or as a reminder—that’s how it’s used in Irma Vep.Bottom line: any movie, whatever it is, will always look better on a big screen, there’s no way around it. It’s a fact of life. 

Scope: My final question might be a loaded one. Can you talk about your relationship to René? Are you as neurotic as him?

Assayas: Well, I’m not as nuts as he is. I’m a very well-behaved, well-educated person.

Scope: No fistfights with the actors?

Assayas: No fistfights on my set. In many ways I am the opposite of René Vidal, in the sense that I want people to be happy on my set. The difference between independent and commercial filmmaking is that at least independent filmmaking strives to be a pleasurable process. People are happy and proud to be doing what they’re doing. There is a sense of collective passion to creating something of meaning. For me, the experience of making a movie has to be understood in terms of the pleasure it provides—to the third assistant director, the prop guy, the driver, everybody has to be a part of it. Or at least that’s my utopia. Apart from that, I’m very close to René. 

With Jean-Pierre Léaud in the original Irma Vep, I was dealing with the Jean-Pierre Léaud, who is obviously not me at all. He was playing an older filmmaker from another generation who has gone through the violence of the creative process and has become rather fragile and neurotic as a result. I looked at him as if he were someone else, and his character deals with different demons than mine. Then time passed—all of a sudden, I realized that I’d become my own character, that I’d become René Vidal. I mean, I’m not doing as badly as he is. But I have similar questions, doubts, and anxieties that I would not have defined the same way as when I did the original Irma Vep. I go even deeper into the character of René in this version because he is haunted by the ghosts of his past. I care about him. It’s not just that I identify with him here and there, or that here and there it’s actually me speaking; sometimes it’s not me speaking at all. We have a closer bond, in a way, because I love and care for him. 

Scope: It’s hard not to love Vincent Macaigne.

Assayas: What Vincent does is remarkable. He gives René such humanity, tenderness, and kindness on top of all his emotional mayhem. I’m grateful. He’s the person who helped me make sense of the whole thing.