The following contains spoilers for Irma Vep Episode 8, “The Terrible Wedding” (written and directed by Olivier Assayas)
With this final episode, Olivier Assayas resolves most, though not all, of his dizzying series’ conflicts, in the process leaving room for his own personal theorizing about the meaning of cinema—and for a surprising big-name cameo. Like Assayas’s fictional director stand-in, I’m a little rueful myself about its conclusion, as with each week Irma Vep has provided new surprises, twists, and ideas, weaving together Louis Feuillade’s 1915 series Les vampires, Assayas’s own 1996 Irma Vep film, and the workings of this contemporary cast and crew to create from it something entirely new: a series that exploits streaming services’ format and flexibility to connect cinema’s past and present with its potential.
And this week’s episode doesn’t disappoint.
For the title sequence, Assayas overlays his animated hand-drawn figures with footage of Alicia Vikander-as-Irma Vep in her riotous performance of Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore’s “Tinder the Spark” from last week’s episode. Lars Eidinger is no longer credited, as his Gottfried character’s work on set is concluded, and the often-high and always-inspired supporting character is missed. One new actor, somewhat surprisingly for the final episode, is credited; and another high-profile cameo is not.
At the end of Episode 7, “The Spectre,” Mira brought down the house with her performance of “Tinder the Spark” as director René Vidal beamed with pleasure. As Episode 8 begins, Mira is ignoring calls from her agent and prowling about in her Irma Vep catsuit once again, eavesdropping now on former lover Eamonn (Tom Sturridge) and his girlfriend, the pop singer Lianna, mentioned in Episode 4 as having suffered a miscarriage before he and Mira engaged in some comfort sex.
Kristen Stewart doesn’t show up too often in one-episode, one-scene cameos. But here she is—“her generation’s most interesting movie star,” per the New Yorker—as Lianna, magnetic as always. Having previously starred in Assayas’s Personal Shopper and Clouds of Sils Maria, Stewart had been announced as a player in Irma Vep, but her presence is still surprising. Her character, dissatisfied in her relationship with her fandom despite her success, questions Eamonn’s feelings for Mira—and rightfully so, given his having sought out Mira while Lianna was on tour. “She’s beautiful, successful, and you were madly in love with her,” Lianna reasons.
Did you, like me, wonder what kind of Mira/Irma K-Stew herself might have made? It’s not impossible to envision her in the part, but I won’t complain about Vikander’s performance: she brings a gentle warmth to Mira that fleshes out her character significantly. She’s also perfectly adept at some of the series’ mild slapstick humor, such as when Mira is momentarily distressed by Eamonn’s declaration that she means nothing to him—and her new phasing power deserts her, leaving her stuck in Eamonn’s suite as he and Lianna hit the sheets.
Fortunately for her, Mira manages to wriggle free and writhe away unnoticed wearing Lianna’s coat. Returning Zelda’s calls, Mira gets some news: a high-profile director wants to work with her on an adaptation of a successful novel, Kingdom Come. Curiously, the agent knows nothing of the book—only of the director—but Mira is conversant with it and the role she is likely to play. She’ll have to travel to London to meet the reclusive director to seal the deal. And do so without her Irma Vep colleagues or the press knowing.
So that means another favor from wardrobe designer Zoe (Jeanne Balibar), who has become something of a fixer on set, securing drugs for Gottfried and now safe passage for Mira. Still smitten with Mira (who here isn’t, other than Gottfried?), Zoe agrees, and while it’s clear Mira is not going to reciprocate Zoe’s affections, Mira lets her down gently and sweetly, doing her the favor of an impromptu club dance to the giddy sixties pop hit “Judy in Disguise (with Glasses).”
Back on the set of Irma Vep, it’s clear now—in ways it wasn’t at the end of Episode 7—that René (Vincent Macaigne) is indeed returned to the director’s chair. Having been temporarily replaced by Mira’s personal assistant Regina (Devon Ross) and the former Doomsday director Herman (Byron Bowers), René, it appears, was indeed directing Mira’s incendiary “Tinder the Spark” performance. And he and Mira, who, remember, had met just weeks ago on the set of Irma Vep, have developed a wonderfully warm, mutually empathetic relationship.
During the production, René has been vexed by financiers, challenged by actors, dogged by his own uncertainties, haunted by ghosts (specifically, that of his former star and lover, Jade Lee, played by Vivian Wu), and overcome with his anxieties. But now, through his therapy sessions and his brief hiatus from the set, René has become more confident in his vision and his capabilities. It’s great to see. And his trust and confidence in his star Mira has also led to his newfound confidence: “You brought me back from the brink,” he tells her.
There’s other news, too: the set—the Vampires’ Castle—is haunted by evil spirits. With one final episode to shoot, will they impact the production? All along, René has been endangering his cast, pushing boundaries, seeking a uniquely cinematic expression. Only Mira, it seems, fully trusts him. The final day’s production will feature the death of Irma Vep by gunshot at the hands of a new character, played by a young drama student named Galatée (Lou Lampros).
Earnest and ambitious, Galatée takes her drama lesson seriously and strikes up a relationship with Regina, hoping first to learn more about Mira. But she also seems sincerely interested in Regina’s own project, her upcoming feature-film debut, and offers to play any part she can, despite its lack of prestige and funding. Meanwhile, Galatée’s drama-school classmates dismiss René as washed-up and crush on Mira as a catsuited villainess. “We’d rather see Mira in a catsuit than Vidal’s whole oeuvre,” one says.
Maybe René can change that perception of himself. Cynthia (Fala Chen) has a polite request: to leave set a day early. René seems genuinely surprised and slightly distressed that she would want to leave, but she does, noting that hers is a minor character whose death need not be emphasized. René asks if Cynthia has ever met his former wife, Jade, like her a Hong Kong star, but Cynthia has not: the two are of different generations and their paths have never crossed. “If you see her, will you say hello from me?” he asks.
I wouldn’t dare speculate about whether Olivier Assayas and his former co-star and spouse Maggie Cheung are as estranged as René and Jade (the Hong Kong star is so famously reclusive it’s news when she appears in public), but onscreen it’s a touching moment: he’s open, vulnerable, and uncertain, working in the moment but also trying to come to terms with his past. Macaigne, who has been excellent throughout the entirety of the series, presents René as a complex man whose work is informed directly by his personal life and relationships—and vice-versa.
Cynthia, meanwhile, gets her own moment to shine in the spotlight, a randy song-and-dance number breaking glass and slithering on a tabletop in the Vampires’ Castle. René’s signature scratches and edits suggest it’s a vital part of his vision for Irma Vep.
Scenes like this one, Mira’s of “Tinder the Spark,” and René’s fast-and-furious Episode 7 edit of the abduction scene have me jonesing to see the “Director’s Cut” of René Vidal’s Irma Vep. Behind-the-scenes film dramas rarely present fictional films as compelling as this one seems to be. How about at least a featurette, Mr. Assayas and HBO powers-that-be?
As intriguing as René’s film may seem, it’s Assayas’s project that draws together past and present nearly effortlessly, weaving together imagery and action from Feuillade’s 1915 serial melodrama, his own 1996 film, and this present-day production. Midway through the series—back in Episode 5 to be exact—Assayas added an additional layer of complexity, making Feuillade and the original Irma Vep’s portrayer, Musidora, also characters in his series, played by their contemporary counterparts Macaigne and Vikander (as René Vidal and Mira Harberg), respectively. Doing so has allowed Assayas to depict filmmaking as it worked in the early days of the medium, when silent cinema was establishing itself as a viable art form but before on-set practices and safety measures were fully codified.
Filmmaking has never been without risk, Assayas seems to be suggesting, tracing a line directly from Musidora’s laying on the train tracks to Edmond’s (Vincent Lacoste) bouncing down concrete stairs in the present day. Sometimes that risk is physical; sometimes, more mental or emotional. René has risked his own emotional well-being to tackle this project. And actors risk becoming too like their characters, just as the spirit of Irma Vep overtakes, and at times threatens to overwhelm, Mira’s.
On set this final day, the risk is physical, as Galatée’s character will be the one to shoot and kill Mira’s Irma Vep, and the scene unfolds both on the set of Les vampires, where Lampros plays ZouZou LaGrange, and, later, René’s project as well. Musidora’s memoir provides narration recalling the danger inherent in her day, the shock of the prop gun fired at too-close range stunning her.
For Galatée, there will be some notoriety in becoming the actor who “killed Mira Harberg.” Perhaps she is on her way, with this small-but-pivotal role in a single episode of a longer series, to a career like Mira’s. She may fell Irma Vep, but as the series’ final scene suggests, Irma Vep is not—and perhaps never will be—dead.
With her work on the project complete, Mira has disappeared, much to the chagrin of her Dreamscape promoters, who have scheduled a lavish photoshoot for their star. But even Dreamscape head Gautier de le Parcheminerie (Pascal Gregory) acknowledges that there is little point in engaging a public feud with a popular star and relents. “You don’t sue Mira Harberg,” he says. “We wait. As long as she wants.”
René, meanwhile, has a final session with his therapist (Dominique Reymond) and a phone call with his wife (voice of Aude Pepin) before returning to his apartment to review the rushes. Explaining his love for—or perhaps it’s an addiction to?—the cinema to his therapist, René concludes “it’s more than a dream, it’s a more profound experience. Once it’s finished, it takes a life of its own.”
And, magically, Irma Vep later does just that: descending from the projector screen in René’s apartment, Mira—or is it now, fully and completely, Irma Vep?—slinks to his floor and then ascends silently through his ceiling to the Parisian rooftops for a final time. At least, I imagine, until the next iteration of Irma Vep, a shapeshifting trickster of cinematic imagination that visits each generation in a new guise.
Assayas’s 2022 series is not, admittedly, for everyone. IMDb reviewers suggest just that, as for some the show is entirely too self-reflexive, for others too intellectual, for still others too slow. For some, Vikander is no substitute for Maggie Cheung, or for that matter, Musidora. I’ll allow that at times, Assayas has virtually ignored narrative continuity; in Episode 6, he’s taken a turn towards the fantastical in giving Mira-as-Irma supernatural power. He’s raised questions about screen violence, set safety, and depictions of sexually charged content that have been less than fully explored.
Yet at the same time, for any cinephile or film buff, for anyone interested in the workings of stardom (especially for a female star), for any fans of Assayas or Vikander, or for anyone willing to engage what cinema itself might mean, especially in today’s post-#MeToo, post-Rust, not-yet-post-pandemic, streaming-dominant era, this Irma Vep is well worth your time—and effort.