In a world of countless remakes and reimaginings, sequels to prequels and adaptations of everything from theme park rides to trading cards, the discourse surrounding both the big and small screens has never felt more frontloaded. Olivier Assayas' ‘new' creation, Irma Vep pushes itself to the centre of this conversation. Adapted from Assayas' 1996 movie of the same name, and following a similar structure to its predecessor, wherein a Hollywood actress – this time Mira (Alicia Vikander), not Maggie (Maggie Cheung) like the original – comes to France in an attempt to inject some much-needed life to a faltering production titled Irma Vep. The irony is that Irma Vep is itself a remake of the Gallic silent film, Les Vampires. It's heady stuff and exactly the nebulous, self-referential playground that Assayas is so comfortable navigating.
Like the 1996 film, Irma Vep throws us, along with its protagonist, straight into the filmmaking world of Assayas' not-so-subtle stand-in, Rene Vidal (Vincent Macaigne), in all its manic glory. Vidal's passion for his production is matched only by his neurotic tendencies to combust on and off set, making for some of the most cringe-worthy and eye-wateringly funny moments that play right on the edge. Macaigne, along with an outstanding lead performance by Alicia Vikander, is everything; opening a wry window into the lesser-seen industry ongoings that all sides of entertainment culture devour with ease.
But it's not just for those who call themselves cinephiles. Irma Vep may revel in its meta-commentary, but one of the pervading strengths of the show lies in its accessibility and its sense of humour. Sure, some of the deep-cut references may evade some viewers, but the comedy isn't limited to its reflexive subject matter. Instead, Assayas seems just as comfortable poking fun at the innate, inescapable pretentiousness at the heart of figures like Mira, along with her co-stars and entourage, as he does in creating the pitch-black, absurdist situations they find themselves in.
It's a fine line to walk, but one Assayas does with his typical fleet-footedness. It's no surprise that the former critic turned filmmaker is so capable of deftly hopping from genre to genre, wicked comedy to squirming calamity all while keeping the show on course for its myriad twists and turns. Lesser filmmakers and artists have tried to comment on the relationship between art and commerce, performance and reality and many seem to falter for numerous reasons; more often than not being their reticence to commit to placing themselves in the firing line. Like its predecessor, Irma Vep has no qualms in this regard and withstands its own sardonic assault through an unabashed love for the art form, the industry, and all their collective falsehoods.
While mileage may vary depending on your knowledge and appreciation for the 1996 film, Irma Vep proves itself to be a rarified example of having your cake and eating it too; working both as a wickedly entertaining example of prestige TV, while also a coy self-satirisation. It doesn't just continue the conversation Assayas started in the mid-90s, it recontextualises it for a contemporary audience, and in its new, episodic guise Irma Vep gives its characters the space needed to add further layers to its omnipresent interrogation of art and entertainment.