a woman in a skin-tight all-black suit walks a ledge at night with the Eiffel Tower in the background
Courtesy Warner Media

Remakes, prequels, reboots, sequels, requels, and the like constitute the majority of what we watch these days. Seems like reimagining what’s been done (and redone) is the first impulse of filmmakers, or, more likely, their financiers. When I see a “new” old thing advertised, my first impulse is to avoid it. Happily, there are exceptions. When Olivier Assayas (Summer Hours, Non-Fiction, Carlos) wants to remake his own 26-year-old film, which itself is a meta riff on a 1916 Louis Feuillade serial, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt.

Feuillade’s Les vampires: Satanas casts a long shadow. Critically reviled in its time, it has since been recognized as a founding template for the thriller genre that persists to this day. I rewatched all ten episodes a few months ago without knowing about Assayas’s new HBO series. It’s a pure joy to watch the journalist/sleuth Guérande, aided by his enemy-turned-friend, Mazamette, chase after a diabolical criminal gang called the Vampires. The plot twists, stunts, and lack of moralizing combine for a formula that’s been applied to so many movies, TV shows, books, and comics that it feels eternal.

In Assayas’s 1996 film, Hong Kong star Maggie Cheung plays a semifictional version of herself in Paris to star in a new take on Les vampires, under the unsteady direction of French auteur René Vidal (Jean-Pierre Léaud). This is not in any way a remake of the 1916 film, but rather a meditation on the then-current state of French cinema. The shoot is a disastrous comedy of errors and Cheung’s bemused outsider is a great stand-in for the viewer, observing a group of nutty, self-absorbed artistes sabotage themselves both personally and professionally. It’s a portrait of a once-inspired scene eating itself. By setting Feuillade’s classic at its center, Assayas shows how far French cinema has fallen.

Irma Vep
Eight 50-60-minute episodes
Now streaming on HBO Max

Now, Assayas reconsiders his own take, albeit on a much wider canvas, in an entirely different media landscape. This new Irma Vep, with the Swedish actress Alicia Vikander assuming Cheung’s lead role and co-producing, allows a great filmmaker to look back as well as forward—to look at where cinema has been and whether it has anywhere else to go. 

Key characters from the 1996 film reappear, but now with much more complex backstories and labyrinthine, messy connections to one another. Vikander’s Mira Harberg is an American action star yearning for a creative legitimacy that no one around wants to allow her. She’s a cash cow and lust object to actors, directors, producers, and assistants, forever being played by this or that one in proxy skirmishes over love and commerce. Vikander keeps Mira buoyant no matter what obstacles those around her throw her way. It’s an affecting performance in its seeming casualness. She makes it look easy when there’s no way it could be, either for the actress or for the actress she plays.

Assayas seamlessly interpolates sequences from the 1916 film with scenes from the current remake, backstage “off-camera” action, as well as dreamlike clips of Cheung from the 1996 version. Now René Vidal (played as a shambling mess ever on the verge of complete breakdown by Vincent Macaigne), is a kind of stand-in for Assayas. He hallucinates the star of the 1996 film, a barely-fictionalized Chinese actress named Jade (Assayas was married to Cheung for a time), haunting his set and preventing him from moving on creatively and personally. Then, as if there weren’t enough levels and layers, due to the crew objecting to a sequence recreating a sexual assault from the original film, Feuillade and Musidora (the first Irma Vep) make their appearance to state their artistic intentions from the distant past.

Each time period is shot in its own format from handheld documentary, to Masterpiece Theatre-like stuffy costume drama, to experimental scratchiness, to a hand-tinted dawn-of-photography look. All the while, the question of whether movies have any future in the age of TikTok is the burning, perhaps unresolvable undercurrent. So many of these people are cinephiles, yet they keep watching rushes as well as clips from all eras of film on their smartphones. With over a hundred years of the moving image at their disposal, these creative people appear at a loss how to proceed. It’s a very familiar feeling.

I’ve seen six of the eight scheduled episodes of Assayas’s show and it gets deeper and funnier as it goes. Structured to roughly resemble Feuillade’s ten-episode structure, I don’t know how he will wrap it all up, but I look forward to finding out. Perhaps he can revisit this world in another ten or 20 years. But will there even be movies or TV shows as we know and love them by then? Please stand by.