The Pitch: Mira Harberg (Alicia Vikander) is an A-list Hollywood action star, hot off a Marvel-like superhero film called Doomsday whose smash success is colored by losing her assistant and lover, Laurie (Adria Arjona), to the film’s director during the shoot. Licking her wounds, she takes a break from blockbusters to fly to France to shoot a limited-series remake of the 1910s French serial Les vampires, in which she’ll play the iconic cat-suited criminal Irma Vep.
But the shoot is suitably manic and unpredictable, from its director, René Vidal (Vincent Macaigne), being such a volatile, insecure mess that the financiers won’t insure him to her prima donna castmate, to Vincent Lacoste’s Edmond, who keeps trying to change his dorky detective character to better flatter his machismo, and off-the-wall German actor Gottfried (Lars Eidinger), who’s a crack-addled agent of chaos. And all the while, Mira digs herself further and further into Irma’s perspective, growing closer to blurring the lines between the two altogether.
Day for Night: The most important thing you need to know about HBO’s latest miniseries is that it’s a remake — not just that, a remake from a filmmaker revisiting his own previous material. In 1996, French filmmaker extraordinaire Olivier Assayas prodded at the vagaries of the French film industry with Irma Vep, a similarly chaotic tale of a beleaguered French art film project starring a high-profile lead who gets lost in the art (there, it was Hong Kong superstar Maggie Cheung playing herself).
In 2022, he’s decided to look back on that story and see what new material he can mine for satire, both in the industry and in his own career, and the results are absolutely intoxicating.
A lot of that comes through in the character of Vidal, Assayas’ clear stand-in for himself, played with repressed volatility by Jean-Pierre Leaud in the original but now, in Macaigne, a desperate boy filled with regrets. He takes antidepressants to better manage his mood swings, but he confesses to Mira early on that he’s “never happy… I tried it, and I decided it was not for me.” Like Assayas himself, he’s taking another crack at Irma Vep after one attempt earlier in his career — one that led to the dissolution of a relationship with its star, Jade (Vivian Wu, clearly standing in for Cheung, to whom Assayas was once married).
But the rest of Irma Vep is suffused with Assayas’ own neuroses about the role of art in cinematic storytelling, especially in a world of prestige-drama limited series and the omnipresence of blockbuster filmmaking. Vikander is slinky, loose and unrehearsed as Mira, which makes it easily one of her very best performances: there’s less of the language/culture barrier that Cheung experienced in her version of Vep, but that’s replaced here by the twin pulls of fulfilling, “Important” work and the opportunity to make boatloads of cash playing a female Silver Surfer (as her agent, played with effortless wit by Carrie Brownstein, so clearly wants her to do).