Irma Vep Season 1 Review – An inconsistent and self-indulgent series

Season 1

Episode Guide

Episode 1 -| Review Score – 3.5/5
Episode 2 -| Review Score – 2.5/5
Episode 3 -| Review Score – 4/5
Episode 4 -| Review Score – 3.5/5
Episode 5 -| Review Score – 3.5/5
Episode 6 -| Review Score – 3.5/5
Episode 7 -| Review Score – 4/5
Episode 8 -| Review Score – 3.5/5


It takes lots of courage and mild ignorance to revisit a project that has given you suffering. The emotion might be different in hindsight and change the way you see it. There is always the promise of a more amicable reimagining of reality.

That is probably what pushed Oliver Assayas to go back to Irma Vep – hope that he will finally put those demons to rest. And maybe, find a way to move on and be grateful for what was.

In the new series about his life, Assayas shows all. Everything that happens in its universe is a mix of his personal journey, insecurities, and opinion about the changing nature and acceptance of art. It is the true highlight of the series that breathes life into it. But at the same time, it also suffocates you as a viewer.

HBO’s miniseries is a eight-part journey on Rene Vidal’s (Vincent Macaigne) sets (and beyond) for the tv adaptation of Louis Feuillade’s 1916 silent film, Les Vampires. Alicia Vikander stars as Mira Harberg and Irma Vep (and at times both simultaneously) in a stunning role.

There is not a lot of emphasis on the story and hence Irma Vep does not constantly unfold. The tone is critical and didactic, as opposed to descriptive and free-flowing. Although the structure itself is not rigid, the exploration of Assayas’ personal life is. His reimagined world seems like it is about other important things in the film industry as well – statistics, algorithms, increasing popcorn content, and a forgotten culture of making movie magic that transported you to spiritual places.

Sharp observations about changing modern sensibilities in not just what the film is but how they’re made, though, come across as Assayas’ own personal expression of angst.

There are many rambling conversations between characters on this tangent that go on endlessly, entangled in the contours of his own mind. And then, they do not lead anywhere. They just exist as part of the episode, lingering, waiting for Assayas to conjure them back.

A lack of openness hinders his very valid and insightful points about what art is. Assayas’ touch feels very overbearing in your experience of the characters and the story. There isn’t much flexibility in how you can take it all in. His vision and insistence to carve out those special details actually disrupt the narrative. There is no real rhythm in the episodes that you can latch on to. There are just fragments and not the complete whole, which makes it a flustering watch.

When you look back, you realize that Assayas wanted closure for everything that happened in his life post-Irma Vep “the movie”. It is almost as if the character is a spirit that has haunted him and affected his works. Cheung’s remnants in his life and film philosophy also remained. All of that, and more, is brought out in Vikander’s characters.

The director has very subtle ways to let you know how consuming it is for Mira to have the power of Irma. She awakens a haunted spirit in her that makes her do incredible things, like walking through walls or having the physical dexterity of a cat. There is something about the costume that attaches itself to Mira’s persona. When it first started to happen in an episode, it was actually really confusing. By the end, there was enough evidence to locate the continuing theme.

This in itself was a jarring turn for the season. Until that point, Assayas focused more on the set and the ancillary characters on it. Their lives, interactions, and professional efforts comprised the substance of what we saw. But Mira and Rene were the focus from the start.

The episode where Chueng’e spirit suddenly appears in Rene’s apartment was the turning point from where a complete turnaround was nigh upon us. I think at that point, Assayas’ narrative became a bit too self-indulgent. Before that, it didn’t stick out like a sore thumb as it did later.

The finale, for instance, loses its bearings for all the running subplots in the series that were tediously built from the ground up and deep-dived into Rene’s psychological state and the unravelling of his emotional barrier.

Precious moments from the 1916 original are also shown in the course of the episodes, adding a nice touch. It really catches you by surprise.

The awe-inspiring boldness of Musidora in her groundbreaking role is truly a sight to appreciate. Assayas has strong feelings on how content today is industrialized to reproduce the same things in different forms to mint money. Clever inventiveness and courage – Musidora actually laid down under a real train in a scene from Les Vampires – are somehow lost on the current generation of filmmakers.

Herman coming in and changing everything that Rene built to add more “pizzazz” to the production with expensive locations, more special effects, and Hollywood vibes was an effective way of manifesting that in the storytelling. Irma Vep, the series, mostly remains just a passion project for Assayas that he made for himself. The most personal is not the most creative in this case, at least. Mr. Scorsese would agree with me if he saw the series.

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  • Verdict - 6.5/10

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