It’s been this summer’s great pleasure watching Irma Vep. Maybe because the two years we’ve known about it have been marked by trepidation-tinged curiosity: Olivier Assayas revisiting his largely unimprovable 1996 film, Maggie Cheung (my favorite actor and our greatest movie star, working or otherwise) here replaced by Alicia Vikander (from whom I’d never seen anything) for an eight-hour TV series. By the first episode’s end did I think all the right pieces were in play, but—speaking as one who’s now seen six—Irma Vep has only grown greater in scope, sharper in concept, and more tangent-happy in its panoptic view of the film industry.
There’s also the jaw-dropping autobiography-of-sorts, though Assayas will talk at greater length about intent and execution elsewhere. Below is our conversation pertaining to episodes one through four of Irma Vep.
The Film Stage: A character says that when Feuillade made Les Vampires he “was trying to represent something that had not been represented using that medium.” Integrating that line into your show / film / whatever you want to call it, I have to wonder if that was a goal as you venture into TV—something that had not been represented before.
Olivier Assayas: Yeah… I suppose. I didn’t verbalize it in the same way, but I suspect you’re right. [Laughs] When I was making the original Irma Vep the question was: was it possible to use the medium—the modern medium—of cinema, meaning our own relationship with images and narratives and fantasy? Can we match Feuillade and the pioneers of cinema? The reason why I thought it was a major difficulty to find, capture that grace again is because, in the silent era, everything was being filmed for the first time. Feuillade did not have a model to build on. Every single shot—even a car passing in the street—was a new question mark. How am I going to film that? How am I going to share it with my audience? How will people understand what’s going on?
But most of all, the movies of the silent era were made by individuals whose imagination had not been modeled, sculptured by previous images of cinema. Today we live in a world where everybody—meaning the filmmakers, the audience; everybody—has an imagination that is defined by both the experience of reality and the experience of cinema. So of course it’s very difficult to go back to a state of innocence when cinema was something—was new. Much as in the same way, in painting, you don’t have two Giottos; you have one Giotto and then you have a lot of people who start painting with similar themes and images. So did I feel like I was doing something for television? No, I don’t think so.
But I was certainly trying to push as far as I could the limits of freedom for filmmakers in that medium. And I am certainly not the first one who benefited from it. I suppose that when Ingmar Bergman has Scenes from a Marriage or he does Fanny and Alexander, or when Fassbinder does Berlin Alexanderplatz, they make personal work that is just sliced. Again: to me the issue of how you name it—what words you put on it—is not entirely relevant because I’m aware that nobody is trying to sit through eight hours of Irma Vep in a movie theater. I mean, we will make a DCP of the full series. It will be, twice, four hours and shown in specific situations, specific locations, but still it gives the series to be seen as one big novel. That has already been done before. But can we recreate the conditions of freedom in a world of algorithms and platforms? That’s obviously a question and I tried my best to protect the freedom of filmmaking for myself.
Which gets at something key about this project: I saw the first four hours in not-ideal circumstances of connecting my TV with a computer always ringing with notifications and demands, so I’m engaged by this thing but then have to pause and get sidetracked for 12 minutes, come back, etc. Yet I knew I liked it—thought it was great—because amidst these distractions it was holding my attention. So: in the creative architecture—writing, shooting, editing—are there considerations for the fact that people are not going to be watching this in an enclosed space? That you’re competing with the outside world more than you might on something that first plays theatrically?
The thing is: I feel that I always function more or less the same way. I mean, I don’t take into consideration where it will end up. I’m profoundly convinced that any image looks better on the big screen, and basically any image makes more sense when it’s seen in a theater, with a crowd which reacts with you to whatever’s going on onscreen—as opposed to something made for somebody sitting on a couch. But very often that person is myself. Recently that’s how I’ve been watching films. So, again, I’m part of the problem. [Laughs]
But in terms of how I function—meaning with my actors, my crew, the people I work with, the way I design the shots—I don’t really see a difference. The difference would be technical, in the sense that, on one side, I have one of the biggest budgets I’ve ever had. It was the budget for a mainstream series, so on and so forth—which means I could have costumes, sets; money was never a problem—but I had to work under terrible pressure because of the end date. When you work for HBO they have a specific air date set, like, a year or two years before, and basically you’re doing it with a countdown [Laughs] from that air date.
That means I had to work very fast—mostly in post-production. I had to work fast in terms of shooting. Every episode was 12-, 13-hour days, but ultimately it was not such a pressure. I kind of enjoyed it. There was a little more energy to the shoot. I was scared by it, but the original Irma Vep I shot in three, four weeks, so I’m kind of used to working fast. The problem was editing fast. You have to trust a lot of the people working on production with you, and they happen to be people I was working with for the last 30 years or something so they know what I like, how I function, how I react. So of course the whole process benefited a lot from the fact that it’s the same people functioning the same way and never really questioning the fact that this will be on a big screen or a small screen.
One thing is that I had no idea what I was doing. Will this impress them? Will an audience be patient with it? Are they ready for that? Will they get the constant going back-and-forth between reality and filming? I wrote something weird, but what I write usually feels weird to me in the first place. [Laughs] I kind of gradually made sense of it, gradually understood what I was doing, and was lucky enough to be working with partners who “got it”—who were supportive of me even before HBO.
It’s plainly crazy that scenes from Les Vampires are screening on HBO.
To be perfectly honest, I had to play around a little with Les Vampires — I kind of adapted it. Because Feuillade’s narrative is not exactly rational. You’d have a hard time making sense of it once in a while, so I had to kind of adapt it. I changed the titles, I recut this and that, but still I think what it was all about is getting to the core of it, the beauty of it. I think I wanted to have within the series the beauty of Feuillade and the mystery of silent cinema. I think there is something very magical in silent cinema.
I was quite stunned about the Jade Lee aspect that emerges in episodes three and four. Is that something you’re okay talking about?
Yeah. But, you know, it’s me and it’s not me. René is myself and not myself. The moment I give it to an actor and write the lines, shoot it on the set with a film crew, it does become something else. In the same way Jade Lee is not exactly Maggie—even if part of it is [Laughs] based on real life. The thing is… again, I feel comfortable with it because it’s a comedy, I’m making fun of myself, I deal with genuine emotions. But I think it’s genuine emotions everyone can share: love lost, failed marriage. Sadly [Laughs] it’s a very common situation. So I touch something that is pretty universal.
But the film is not… it kind of happened to me. When I started working on Irma Vep as a series I didn’t think I would use that element. It’s as if my past with Maggie kind of invited itself into the series. At some point, when I was dealing with this filmmaker who had previously made a film called Irma Vep, of course it’s myself. It channels memories of the filmmaking but, also, memories of the real life around it. I would be lying, cheating if I was not using it or representing it because it’s such an important part of the memory of Irma Vep.
It felt like an invitation to something private, and not in a leering way. The course you take seemed—maybe this is a silly word—brave.
I think that when you deal with those scenes, that kind of dialogue, you need to have the right actor. Ultimately I think Vincent Macaigne really got it. I mean, Vincent understood the emotions: he understood the humor of the character, he understood the neurosis of the character. He could move seamlessly from scenes that are pure comedy, being just fun, and moments when it deals with the inner self and the emotion has to be there. And I think he was pretty impressive. He sometimes plays a take on me—he has fun with that and so do I. But again: when it really touches the most sensitive areas he’s very delicate, elegant, and smart about it, and it makes it all meaningful to me.
Halfway through I’m entirely onboard with this project.
For me the weirdest thing, really, is to discuss something that’s not finished. I honestly can’t wait for you to see the next four. [Laughs] Because it moves on; it progresses.
Irma Vep is currently streaming on HBO Max and concludes on July 25.