Irma Vep Episode 7: “The Spectre”

Alicia Vikander in the Irma Vep catsuit.
Photograph by Carole Bethuel/HBO

The following contains spoilers for Irma Vep Episode 7, “The Spectre” (written and directed by Olivier Assayas)

So far, practically every episode of Irma Vep since its first has heightened the stakes and conflicts among the cast and crew of the film—or is that series?—René Vidal (Vincent Macaigne) has been directing. In Episode 7, “The Spectre,” events reach a fever pitch as the previously-missing René reveals his own dizzying edit and Mira (Alicia Vikander) dazzles with her performance.

At the end of Episode 6, Mira could suddenly phase through walls, and now she seems increasingly confident in her newfound power, eavesdropping on a conversation between costumer Zoe (Jeanne Balibar) and co-star Cynthia (Fala Chen) before directly confronting the latter. Cynthia, unflappable as always, seems unperturbed by her castmate’s magical appearance in her suite, and the two debate whether movies are art, one of the series’ key themes. Mira—who says she is no longer sure she is Mira—pines for a spiritual world which she feels is no longer accessible. Can film, as an art form, provide something more than mere entertainment? Access to that world, perhaps?

Image from Irma Vep: Cynthia Keng (Fala Chen), sitting in a lavish suite.
Cynthia Keng (Fala Chen). Photo: Carol Bethuel/HBO.

Assayas, surely, will want his viewers contemplating those kinds of questions. Mira concludes that movies help us question the material world and blithely phases away through the wall. That they do, yet movies are more a part of the material world than any other artform. Meanwhile, Cynthia is called to set. Her next scene requires the presence of a “bondage consultant” and it’s great, great fun. Clearly the consultant advises on a what we might call a wide array of projects and he has to be reminded that this particular project, as Zoe says, is “mainstream”—and perhaps not his typical assignment. Is Assayas puncturing the contemporary practice of hiring intimacy coordinators to ensure actors’ safety and comfort? Perhaps, and perhaps he is wrong to do so. But the whole scene is a comedic highlight of the series as the bondage coordinator’s expectations and experience conflict with those of Irma Vep‘s more genteel cast and crew.

Herman (Byron Bowers) is now firmly in charge on the set, with René still AWOL from the project. Used to directing big-budget projects like Doomsday, he’s wondering where his drones and Steadicams are. René would use neither. A spilt-screen montage set to the unlikely accompaniment of “Beatnik Fly” by Johnny and the Hurricanes fuses together footage from Louis Feuillade’s Les vampires, Assayas’s 1996 Irma Vep, and the new project René and Herman have been directing. More than at any moment so far in the series, the past and present collide, with a clever series of match cuts integrating action from multiple timelines. They’ve become more connected than ever before.

Image from Irma Vep: Herman (Byron Bowers) in the director's chair.
Herman (Byron Bowers). Photo: Carol Bethuel/HBO.

Having concluded his final day on set, the ever-effervescent (that is, when he’s not comatose) Gottfried (Lars Eidinger) toasts his colleagues. His sentiments? “Who will put their life on the line for movies today?” he asks. That he manages his speech while clambering over craft tables and foldable chairs in his fashion boots without incident is a minor miracle. So far, we’ve seen this actor risk his own life for an erection, with his autoerotic asphyxiation-induced coma in Episode 6, Edmond (Vincent Lacoste) unceremoniously hung and then tumbled down concrete stairs in a wicker trunk in Episode 3, and Robert (Hippolyte Girardot) nearly heel-stomped by Mira (also in Episode 6).

Mira escaped the last scene with a mere turned ankle, but the next scene is truly frightening. In Les vampires, Feuillade, working largely without a script, frequently directed scenes where his actors were at physical risk, just as we saw last episode, when he offered “triple pay for those injured” after a cannon blast. His Irma Vep, Musidora, did her own stunts, including being run over by a train, and Mira-as-Musidora narrates a re-enactment of that scene. “Musidora, there’s nothing to fear,” Feuillade (played by René’s portrayer Vincent Macaigne) assures her as she lays down on the track, unprotected, awaiting a scheduled train; then, to his crew, he yells, “Musidora is taking a big risk!”

Image from Irma Vep: Louis Feuillade (Vincent Macaigne) in the director's chair.
Louis Feuillade (Vincent Macaigne). Photo: Carol Bethuel/HBO.

Wow. Was she! Musidora recalls the sensations, and fortunately she—somehow—survived the incident. I couldn’t help but think of the horrifying death on the set of Midnight Rider, the William Hurt-as-Gregg Allman biopic, where a director shot a scene on a railroad track that resulted in a young camera assistant’s death. The scene is frightening and astonishing all at once and Feuillade is clearly unnerved, then delighted, by the result. “I could never say no to Feuillade,” Musidora recalls.

Back in the present, Mira’s personal assistant Regina (Devon Ross) has been contemplating her career path and her developing feelings for Mira. She’s more than a little tipsy, and she has news: she’s going to make her first feature, once her work on the set of Irma Vep is done. But what it seems she really wants is a more personal bond with Mira. At the end of their dinner, in front of her hotel room, they kiss—but that’s all. Afterwards, Mira uses her power to eavesdrop as Regina confesses her deep crush on the star. If somehow Mira has been unaware of Regina’s feelings—they’ve been made clearer to viewers than to her—now she knows without any ambiguity.

Image from Irma Vep: Regina (Devon Ross) sits on a bed as Mira (Alicia Vikander) watches in her catusuit.
Regina (Devon Ross) and Mira (Alicia Vikander). Photo: Carol Bethuel/HBO.

And once again, the Irma Vep catsuit influences Mira’s persona and power. She returns with the necklace she pilfered to Herman and Laurie’s apartment, her image merging with Maggie Cheung’s character’s in Assayas’s 1996 film. As ever, Herman and Laurie are discussing Mira: “F*ck Mira,” Herman concludes. (That was the problem in the first place, I’ll note.) Mira drops the necklace off the balcony and pays one more visit: to René in his apartment.

There she encounters the spirit of Jade Lee (Vivian Wu), the character who now stands in for Maggie Cheung, star of Assayas’s earlier film and then, for a time, his wife. Mira and Jade have a cordial conversation: Mira seeks to assuage her anxiety about playing a Chinese character, and Jade absolves her of any cultural appropriation, encouraging her to let Irma Vep be her and to bring René back to the project.

Image from Irma Vep: Jade (Vivian Wu) and Mira (Alicia Vikander) sit in an apratment.
Jade (Vivian Wu) and Mira (Alicia Vikander). Photo: Carol Bethuel/HBO.

Upstairs, René has been editing his own version of the film. In Assayas’s 1996 version, this character as played by Nouvelle Vague icon Jean-Pierre Léaud did the same, his result being profoundly anti-commercial, a music-less Brakaghian assemblage of chaotic imagery of Maggie Cheung cavorting in her catsuit. It’s an affecting piece of experimental filmmaking, but it’s unclear whether it sees the light of day.

This 2022 version is an absolute blast, beginning with the controversial abduction scene from Episode 5. Set, cleverly, to Sonic Youth’s “Mildred Pierce” (echoing another HBO prestige-production series-length adaptation of a classic film narrative, and a reminder that the band was on the soundtrack to Assayas’s 1996 film too), images of Mira as Irma, Gottfried as Moreno, and others from the shoot are cut in fast-motion alongside images from Feuillade.

It rocks, and hard. It’s also only a minute long. Remember, René was making, in his words, an eight-hour-long film. As awesome a cut as it is, it’s nearly impossible to register what purpose it might serve.

René is used to spirits showing up unannounced in his apartment, so Mira’s presence there does not seem to disturb him much. He sees Irma Vep as a shapeshifter who has been reinventing herself every generation, someone or something who is not evil, simply a spirit, one who is continually reawakened by cinema.

The more pragmatic Mira advises him against drinking while on anti-depressants and encourages him to return to the set of Irma Vep. “I care,” she says. Those are powerful words. “It’s your project. Herman will finish this episode. Then you come back.” Jade, reappearing, agrees: “Do it, René,” she says.

Image from Irma Vep: René (Vincent Macaigne) in his apartment.
René (Vincent Macaigne). Photo: Carol Bethuel/HBO.

There is one last scene in this penultimate episode, and it is a showstopper: back on the set of Irma Vep, assistant director Carla (Nora Hamzawi) sets the take in motion, and Mira performs her cabaret song in front of a full, lascivious, enthralled crowd. In doing so, she completely commands the room—and the screen. A single spotlight illuminating her white blouse and tousled hair, Mira—Irma—tantalizes and teases. Even without the catsuit, without phasing through walls, she has channeled the power of Irma Vep, her beguiling performance enrapturing the camera and everyone around her.

Image from Irma Vep: Mira performs as Irma Vep.
Mira (Alicia Vikander), as Irma Vep Photo: HBO

As the performance concludes with a few slight scratches and marks—signs, perhaps, of an edit?—the enraptured include a beaming René, who watches, thrilled, himself. Seated on a velveteen sofa, is he on the set, directing this episode? Has he come back to the fold, as Mira and Jade implored him to? Assayas is just a little coy here: it’s possible René is somewhere else at this moment, and we haven’t seen him, Regina, or Herman, all of whom have directed some part of Irma Vep, on this set in this scene.

For seven episodes, Assayas has kept us guessing, blurring the lines between fact and fiction, reality and artifice, in the process questioning the relationships between art and commerce, film and television, the real and the reel. It’s been a delight, far, far more challenging and satisfying than HBO’s similar series-length adaptations of Mildred Pierce and Scenes from a Marriage. Conceptually, Assayas seems to be suggesting Irma Vep can exist as an infinite loop, one with each generation visited by its shapeshifting spirit—a spectre, if you will, to acknowledge this episode’s title—in a specific cultural moment in a new and surprising form. Pragmatically, I’m hoping to know: did indeed René return to finish his project? Will it find an audience, satisfy its financiers and other stakeholders? Will it satisfy René and Mira, who seem to have found a common bond and level of trust between them?

In 1996, Assayas left many of these questions unanswered. But that was a different time and a different medium, and this contemporary series has continually mined the rich past of its antecedents for a marvelously complex metacommentary on filmmaking. Assayas’s frequent callbacks to both Feuillade’s Les vampires and to his own 1996 film make this 2022 Irma Vep infinitely fascinating, a cinephile’s delight. It’s also raised the stakes for its two protagonists, René and Mira, with each episode. And this installment features two dizzyingly evocative set pieces in René’s montage-edit and Mira’s cabaret performance, both of which have Assayas demonstrating the power of cinema to astonish and enrapture.

But we know too the cinema can endanger, even destroy, and for as comic as this series has been at times, I’m anticipating its conclusion with equal parts enthusiasm and dread.

Irma Vep concludes with Episode 8, “The Terrible Wedding,” airing Monday, July 18, on HBO and HBO Max.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Executive Editor and a writer-reviewer at Film Obsessive. A retired professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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