Irma Vep Episode 1: “The Severed Head”
As Episode 1 begins, I’m immediately struck by the vibrant and charming title sequence announcing its title, “The Severed Head.” Assayas uses the episode titles of the original Feuillade The vampires here, and we’ll see how closely, if at all, these relate to the episode content of this new series. Trading on the imagery of the iconic catsuit made famous first by Musidora and then by Cheung, the hand-drawn animation opens with a catsuit-clad version of Vikander’s character who talks about the Parisian nightscape, the Eiffel Tower, moonlight and silhouettes. His character jumps, leaps, prowls and catapults before transforming into a winged bat-like creature flying across the screen to the music of Mdou Moctar’s “Ya Habibti”. Streaming services always tempt us with the hellish incentive to “skip the intro”, but I’m going to indulge in this playful and delightful sequence from Stéphane Manel every episode.
Stepping off the plane wearing a stocking cap, sunglasses, and fashionable travel clothes, Mira arrives in Paris to be immediately escorted by drivers and attendants. The new series’ fidelity to Assayas’ film seems pronounced, as the scenes almost exactly echo Cheung’s arrival in 1996. But the series will soon take on its own twists. Mira almost immediately seems more direct than Cheung in expressing her needs: “I don’t need a hit,” she says to Vidal’s adoring production assistant Regina (Devon Ross), film school buff. who reads Deleuze. “I want a good movie.”
All seems well for Mira, a bit jetlagged but optimistic, until she learns that her former lover Laurie (Adria Arjoni) is here in Paris with her new husband Herman – a kept secret of Mira until now. and which seems to destabilize the actress. Later we will see why. First of all, there is publicity work to be done for the already-hit-in-the-US-and-soon-to-be-released-in-France judgment Day, a film in which the character of Mira would have castrated an adversary. Asked about the ideology of the film, Mira visibly bristles. But on the red carpet, she practices smiles, poses and balance. Another question riddles her when asked if she’s seen the original (of Feuillade): Mira obviously doesn’t like having her own cinematic bona fides challenged. She saw it, she says, more than a little defensive.
Also at the event: Mira meets Laurie, apparently for the first time since their split, Laurie having married Herman in the meantime. Both gybe and spar. It’s clear there’s been some bad blood – and heat – in their relationship. There really isn’t an exact analog for this relationship or series of events in Assayas’ 1996 film and due to its prominence in this opening episode, it could be a major plot point in the future. I hope so: it’s filled with fireworks. The two share a smoke and lean close. An irritated Mira states, “You know I’m a better f*ck than Herman!” It’s a claim that Laurie doesn’t deny and that it’s impossible to imagine Maggie Cheung uttering in 1996.
The next day, Regina takes Mira to the set, where she finds René Vidal (Vincent Macaigne) knee-deep, wading through mud filming a scene involving a drowned corpse. No stuntmen as in the film by Assayas in 1996, which featured the icon of the New Wave Jean-Pierre Léaud, the famous Antoine Doinel by François Truffaut. The 400 blows and its sequels – like René Vidal. Macaigne is perfectly cast and punchy in these scenes, though I wonder who Assayas might have cast if he was a bit more playful and self-reflective. Himself, perhaps? Or wouldn’t he like to portray himself as old and underprivileged despite his nearly 40 years in the industry? Rene’s film, it seems, is more of a Victorian era piece, following Feuillade closely. Typical on-set issues come as the crew scrambles to get the scene right.
René’s hesitant English does not hinder his communication with Mira. He says she “shines”. Mira says she’s a fan. Although he seems less confident about his aspirations – saying “I don’t really care about movies” and later “I’m never happy” and “There’s no plan” – the two seem to fit together. tie on their appreciation for Musidora, the actress who made the character of Irma Vep so iconic in 1916. “She was an outlaw and so were we,” he tells Mira. Even if René seems less confident in his project, his relationship with his star looks promising.
This being a remake, if that’s the right term, of Irma Vep, there is of course, then, this catsuit. What would a self-respecting Irma Vep be without her?
Mira is offered one of many costume prototypes, this one made of a velvety, stretchy fabric that catches and reflects light, and for a first attempt, as she notes, the result is frankly quite spectacular. Mira dons the costume and looks almost immediately transformed: Vikander, who trained as a ballet dancer at the Royal Swedish Ballet in her native Sweden and then left a promising career in screen dance due to injuries, improvises a feline prowling up a staircase and out of sight of its customers. Seemingly already sensing her iconic character’s cat-burglar instincts, she stealthily steals a credit card from a purse – which the superstar actress can’t possibly need – before returning. Assayas wasted little time suggesting that Mira will feel the influence of Irma Vep’s suit and persona in ways that are likely to escalate.
In a subplot featuring the cast members, Edmond (Vincent Lacoste) attempts to negotiate additional scenes, ostensibly for his own character’s motivation, but also in an effort to reenact sex with his former lover/co-star. star. He begs her to even advocate for the hiring of an intimacy coordinator—something no production had (but many needed!) in the mid-1990s and before. Another subplot involves Rene’s addiction to powerful mood stabilizers and his telling production underwriters about it, a mistake that could come back to haunt him and his plans to The vampires. René had, after all, tried to run over his lead actor with his car in a previous production. Despite his talent, he represents a risk, and not only for his insurers, who are now categorical: they will not subscribe to this project.
But the real action intensifies when Laurie arrives on set to visit Mira. Mira, dressed in her catsuit, arouses Laurie’s desires, and Laurie secretly so openly initiates a certain command over the star she once worked for. “I know you,” she told Mira, “and you’re excited.” She looks intensely like a sadistic hypnotist (there was one, by the way, in The vampires !) and begins a series of commands: “Sit down. Put your hands on the chair. Lean back. Open your legs. Not too.”
Mira complies. If Mira is on, clearly Laurie is. She stops, opens her mouth to inhale, lowers her gaze and, satisfied, says “Here you go”.
“Like that?” Mira asks, looking back. Laurie asks, “Do you want me back? Say it.” Mira does, but with a certain defiance in her tone. Laurie abruptly takes her leave, and the two meet at the Plaza tonight “for a drink,” Laurie says, though she pretty clearly implies more than that as she strokes Mira’s chin, “I know you’ll be there,” she says as she walks out.
In the meantime, production continues, with actors growing increasingly exasperated by their characters’ lack of motivation. Why would he give her a poisoned ring? Fair enough: the new production seems little more than an echo of the original, a 1910s series that eschewed any character development or psychology for a wildly melodramatic thriller of twists and turns. A visibly disappointed Regina relents when Mira says she’s staying “for a meeting”. And Laurie is late.
Turns out it’s a power play. Laurie makes Mira wait for almost an hour. And when she arrives, she is dressed to the nines. Or dozens. Maybe eleven. Mira notices this immediately, even if she is not used to being waited on. Laurie reminds Mira that she spent several hours waiting for the star in their past relationship. Was there more? Did Mira abuse this power she held over her assistant? How much revenge will Laurie demand?
Suddenly, Laurie ends this appointment without the promised drink. She leaves for an evening with Herman. And Mira is left alone, with little more than a final, pathetic epithet to utter: “Fuck off, Laurie,” she says, again a blunt expression unimaginable from Maggie Cheung’s character an era or three before.
It’s clear this 2022 Irma Vep goes where Assayas and Cheung didn’t in 1996. More than just an update, the eight-episode structure should allow for some diversion and expansion. Already we’ve seen a grittier, tougher protagonist and gained more story for her than in the movie version. With Laurie’s revenge and marriage, her and Mira’s palpable sexual chemistry, Regina’s desires, and Rene’s struggles on and off set, Assayas promises HBO and HBO Max subscribers plenty to sink their teeth into. the tooth. Its new Irma Vep won’t be the same one that launched his international fame in 1996, but judging by this first installment, it promises to be a wild ride through a murky production and several thorny relationships.
Episode 2 of Irma Vep“The Killing Ring,” airs Monday, June 13 on HBO and HBO Max.