A decade after its initial release, the Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke remade his 1997 film, Funny Games. Some remakes are meant to be corrective, Haneke’s was not. Nearly everything in the 2007 version was the same: the protracted bloodiness, its jarring apathy, and even each shot. The difference was that the remake was filmed in English, rather than the original German, and that its run time was shorter — by a minute.
Why remake your own film exactly as it was? Haneke’s answer to Filmmaker in 2008 was simple: to reach the broader public. He had no intention of changing his film. What compelled him was, plainly put, his duty as a filmmaker. After all, Funny Games was a film made with a specific goal: to provoke so intensely that its viewers might reconsider their own relationship to violence. An American-backed production starring Naomi Watts would transcend the arthouse audiences Funny Games had already exhausted. “If [cinema] is art,” Haneke told Filmmaker, “it is automatically responsible. A film has to be a dialogue… to provoke in the viewer his own thoughts, his own feelings.”
Fourteen years later, this thought is still intriguing. What is art's responsibility — and to what or to whom? This is a painful question in this modern age of content, dominated by remakes upon remakes, although seemingly for little purpose than profit. Prestige streaming services might have briefly seemed like a place where filmmakers could take chances, though that moment might already be over. In a few days, Warner Bros. will remove a slew of films and television from HBO Max as part of a merger with Discovery, condemning that content to a limbo-like state in which they cannot be accessed unless pirated. This the latest instantiation of a bleak, yet eternal crisis in cinema: the moneyed whims of corporations reign supreme in what we see.
How ironic that one of the best recent meditations on the corporate chokehold on art is Irma Vep, an eight-part limited series released on HBO Max. Like Haneke, French filmmaker Olivier Assayas remade his own film. The original Irma Vep from 1996 is both metafictional and autofictional, following a French filmmaker — neurotic, hostile, and impossibly unhappy, probably like Assayas — who struggles to direct an adaptation of Les Vampires, a 1915 silent serial by Louis Feuillade. However, unlike Haneke, Assayas hasn’t striven for replication with his remake. Rather, Assayas has chosen something closer to confrontation.
The new Irma Vep doesn’t depart so drastically from the template of the original film. There is the famous, disillusioned star; the inordinately frustrated — sexually and otherwise — cast and crew members; Zoé (Jeanne Balibar, previously Nathalie Richard), the lesbian costume designer who is hardly keen to conceal an attraction to her star; Grégory (Alex Descas, the only actor to reprise his original role), a producer who wants only to quell the catastrophes on set; and René Vidal (Vincent Macaigne, previously Jean-Pierre Léaud), the French filmmaker who becomes his own greatest catastrophe.
The star of the new Irma Vep is Mira Harberg (Alicia Vikander). Tired of acting in Hollywood drivel, Mira is thrilled by the opportunity to belong to something serious: René’s adaptation of Les Vampires. Everyone in Los Angeles is stunned by Mira’s decision to seemingly squander her fame on an obscure filmmaker’s adaptation — let alone, second adaptation — of a seven hour-long silent film. Nonetheless, Mira is ecstatic.
Immediately, the filming of Irma Vep devolves into a circus of overwrought libidos. Edmond (Vincent Lacoste) demands a sex scene with an ex-amour. Zoé is blatantly smitten by Mira; Mira’s young assistant, Regina (Devon Ross) is a little more coy. Gottfried (Lars Eidinger) nearly dies from an attempt at autoerotic asphyxiation. René’s imperious producer Gautier (Pascal Greggory) forces him to cast Cynthia (Fala Chen), a rising young star from Hong Kong — eerily similar to René’s ex-wife, Jade Lee (Vivian Wu). Assistant director Carla (Nora Hamzawi) has the unfortunate task of wrangling everyone on set, made insurmountably more difficult when René disappears in the midst of production.
The new Irma Vep hasn’t forgotten the concerns of the original film. Of them, most crucial: What actually constitutes art? At over eight hours, Irma Vep not only has more freedom to explore this question, but still does so with purposeful rigor. The characters of Irma Vep often wander into conversations about art and its meaning, which seem to represent conflicting slivers of Assayas’s own thoughts. The tension between Assayas’s ideas becomes explicit through a conversation in the third episode between Edmond, Gottfried, and Zoé. “You adapt to the market; that’s the opposite of art,” Edmond says. “Who cares if cinema is art?” Gottfried groans. Zoé huffs in response: “Cinema is better than art. It captures reality in ways other arts don’t.”
Distinctive about Irma Vep — and of Assayas's style as a whole — is the seriousness with which Assayas regards his ideas. He does not approach any of his ideas gently; he slices into them with a cool, methodical elegance, dissecting them until all that’s left are their guts. His films glisten with the sheen of the unseemly: they are totally unafraid, and especially in their intelligence. Much is owed to Assayas’s beginnings in cinema as a film critic for Cahiers du cinéma, the same journal that birthed the French New Wave. His films, like any good criticism, are concerned with the way one should live and be. Assayas is an artist who is searching for a coherent way to connect the singular experience to something broader. (“In art, you can move from the intimate to the universal,” Assayas said in 2010.) As one of his characters in Non-Fiction says: “All fiction is autobiographical.”
There is no film for which this is more true than Irma Vep, a film that became his reality. Prior to its release, Assayas was a filmmaker beginning to garner international regard; Cold Water blew away crowds at Cannes. After meeting her once, Assayas wrote Irma Vep for and around the actress Maggie Cheung, who had also not yet developed renown outside of her native Hong Kong. Cheung became Assayas’s muse — then, wife. The two married shortly after filming. Then, they split. Cheung moved away from France and back to Hong Kong, where she retired from acting and the public eye at what seemed to be the apex of her career.
Assayas had little idea what he would create when he began writing the new Irma Vep — but after a few episodes, it became clear he would have to involve his personal ghosts: his “failed” marriage to Cheung, to whom he has not spoken since, and the agonies and regrets imbricated with their shared history. “Ghosts have very little to do with the dead. They’re more about what’s dead inside us,” René says in the sixth episode of Irma Vep. “When you write, you’re dealing with ghosts,” Assayas told AnOther this year. “That specific ghost invited itself into the series. There was nothing I could do about it. It was obvious and essential.”
What I admire most intensely about Assayas is his commitment to feeling, and the discipline with which he pursues its direction — even if it demands his own suffering and shame. Assayas grew up in the shadow of May ’68, electrified by the ecstasy of punk and rock music, which had “this radicality… about saying ‘no future’… which was a way of going back to dealing with the world, with the present.” Irma Vep itself features Sonic Youth notably; the new Irma Vep is even scored by Thurston Moore.
Yet, it’s from no punk conviction that René, in both iterations of Irma Vep, is unable to move forward with both his film and his life. In the original Irma Vep, René believes his film is a failure, but cannot understand why. After a nervous breakdown, René confesses to Maggie that he “feels nothing” for his own film. All it feels like are “images on images.” In the new, René introduces his problem almost comically, asking: “Why is my sex life so troubled?” As his therapist (Dominique Reymond) points out, René has never remade one of his own films — and the obvious difference with this new remake is the absence of his ex-wife, who has not spoken to him since their divorce. René denies to his therapist that there are any “unresolved feelings.” He has “closure,” he insists. We do not believe him.
Something invisible is at play. What compels us to create? Personal Shopper, a film about a young medium waiting to hear from her dead brother, was Assayas's first realized attempt at painting the "invisible forces" of the creative process, animated by all that which cannot be articulated: libidinal, supernatural. The original Irma Vep wanted, too, to be about the invisible; the new Irma Vep tries again. There is explicit mention of ghosts, of darkness and lightness, of film as a medium to summon Lucifer. And then there is the sheer fact that the characters of the new Irma Vep can neither escape from nor make sense of what haunts them. Off camera, Mira suffers. She is still in love with her ex-assistant, Laurie (Adria Arjona), with whom Mira had an affair while unhappily married to her then-husband, Eamonn (Tom Sturridge). “We’re not complete strangers, yet,” Eamonn tells Mira; the two have sex. René, too, suffers, telling the spirit of Jade, “I remember how much we were in love, but I don’t really remember the person you were.” And, Jade: “I’m not sure that I knew you.”
Neither Irma Vep, old or new, can formulate a coherent answer to the inexplicability of art's genesis. The frustration of its mystery causes René to abandon his film entirely in the original Irma Vep. In the new Irma Vep, René does so again, nearly. But René returns. Two decades later, Assayas has found that perhaps the most urgent responsibility of art is to oneself. After his breakdown, René confesses to Maggie that he wanted to create this film because he was "excited" by the idea of her "in this costume": a tight, latex bodysuit from a bondage shop. Maggie replies, simply and smartly: "That's desire, and that's what we make movies with."
Annie Geng is a writer based in New York.