Deep breath, exhale. Are you ready?
The new HBO limited series “Irma Vep,” from the French director Olivier Assayas, is about the making of a limited series reboot of the 1915-1916 French silent crime serial “Les Vampires,” and it should be noted Assayas previously directed a 1996 film titled “Irma Vep,” which was about a French director remaking “Les Vampires.”
Oh, and “Irma Vep” is an anagram of VAMPIRE.
Wait, what? I know. As much as we’d like to avoid tossing about the overly tossed-about term “meta,” there’s so much meta on display here, you can’t help but note the very meta-ness of it all.
Ah, but here’s the good news: It’s not a requirement for you to watch the 10-part original silent series, nor do you need to have seen the 1996 “Irma Vep,” to enjoy this crackling good, sometimes hilariously farcical showbiz satire. Sure, there are times when you’ll likely get lost in the weeds, but that’s kind of the point, as director Assayas is leading us through a funhouse-mirror maze filled with wonderfully chaotic and deliberately messy developments.
With Academy Award winner Alicia Vikander turning in funny, self-deprecating, breezy and charming work as the movie star cast in the lead of the series-within-the-series, and at least a half-dozen memorable performances from the international supporting cast, “Irma Vep” is a bit like a Parisian take on Robert Altman’s classic Hollywood black comedy “The Player.” It’s deeply cynical about the process of making movies (and limited series), but there’s also an underlying celebration of the whole crazy business.
Vikander is Mira Harberg, an American actress who is riding a wave of popularity after co-starring in a blockbuster titled “Doomsday,” but is now looking to do a more prestigious project, which brings her to Paris to star in “Irma Vep,” an eight-part series based on a film from the 1990s that was based on that aforementioned silent serial from more than a century ago.
The financier behind “Irma Vep” is mostly interested in getting Mira to sign off as the face of a new line of cosmetics, perfumes and colognes, and Mira’s agent, Zelda (Carrie Brownstein), is pleading with Mira to commit to playing the Silver Surfer in a big-budget superhero movie – but Mira is focused on playing the title character in this new series, a mysterious figure who lurks about in a black catsuit while committing various crimes.
With the astonishingly creative cinematography toggling between the “making-of” footage and the series-within-the-series (we also see snippets from Louis Feuillade’s original serial), we experience “Irma Vep” primarily through Mira’s viewpoint and meet a colorful array of characters, including:
• Vincent Macaigne’s Rene, the mercurial director of the project, who has such a checkered history of unpredictable behavior he might not be insurable. Even his therapist has blocked his number.
• Adria Arjona as Mira’s former assistant and lover, Laurie, who revels in manipulating Mira and is enjoying her own time in the spotlight thanks to a recent high-profile wedding.
• Jeanne Balibar’s Zoe, a talented and cheerfully difficult costume designer who becomes a friend and confidant to Mira, and things get a bit flirtatious as well.
• Vincent Lacoste’s Edmond, the pompous, self-absorbed, questionably talented leading man in the series.
• Devon Ross as Mira’s assistant, Regina, who has that “vocal fry” delivery popularized by millennials, offers deadpan commentary on Mira’s life and career moves, and has ambitions to become a director.
• Lars Eidinger’s Gottfried, a famous (and famously messed-up) German actor who arrives for the shoot and announces someone needs to get some crack for him, because “without crack, I don’t act.”
• Tom Sturridge’s Eamonn, a movie star who happens to be Mira’s ex, and also happens to be shooting a big-budget movie in Paris, playing some sort of space explorer. (Eamonn tells Mira the movie is kind of like “Blade Runner,” only without the neo-noir, the rain and the replicants.)
• Nora Hamzawi’s Carla, the harried first assistant director on the series who at times seems to be the only grounded, rational, not totally narcissistic individual within 25 kilometers.
As Mira (hey, that’s an anagram for Irma!) questions her place in the film/TV world as well as her place in the world, “Irma Vep” indulges in a steady stream of real-world pop culture references, from one actor saying he doesn’t want to end up “like my friend, Harvey Weinstein,” to an extra on the set of the series talking about being an extra on “Emily in Paris.” It’s all very clever and very much inside baseball, and there are times when it’s almost exhausting keeping up with all the Byzantine developments, but “Irma Vep” is worth the effort for its many moments of inspired lunacy.