Review: 'Irma Vep' is a Mythical Temple of Answers

by Noe Kamelamela

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Monday June 6, 2022

'Irma Vep'
'Irma Vep'  (Source:Warner Media)

Entertainment is an industry. Art is not. The French have a lot to say about this — probably a lot more than Americans can imagine — and for people who are interested in slicing through these two types of dense weeds to discover a mythical temple of answers, the TV series "Irma Vep" exists.

I wouldn't call this extremely high art or the most serious arena of discussions, but there is a lot of ground to cover, cultural, time-wise, and also regarding technique. It is referential, though not preciously reverential, about the varied original material, which includes, amongst other influences, Olivier Assayas' movie "Irma Vep," starring Maggie Cheung in the title role, which was itself a film with the premise of following the production of a remake of a silent film classic "Les Vampires," directed by Louis Feilluade.

If your head spins at the various layers this implies, including the extra metatheatre of Olivier Assayas also writing and directing this, then yes, this may not be the hour-long serial for you. There are numerous interpretations of meaning, so even when a viewer cannot quite place the source of humor or theme, they may have a decent chance of being correct (or correct enough).

While "Irma Vep" could end up stodgy due to a century's worth of history and interconnected story weaving, it is also delightfully queer (in the way many of these artists are assumed to be queer), joyfully strange in how it shows desire as an unusual and unpredictable force, and enthusiastically weird as a counterpoint to linear storytelling, which aims to achieve concrete goals. My mind meandered very often while watching, obsessed with a curtain or fixated on a random extra's haircut, pleased with the lighting in one scene or unamused by an abrupt transition to exactly 100 or so years earlier.

I wish the longings shown on screen were as concrete and sexual as possible, because a lot of the more ephemeral yearnings, like the need to be understood, the want to be respected, and the hope for requited love, were all alienating and subjective. The remaining universal through-line was the agony of thwarted aspirations, but it is hardly the unifying force it could be for the players of this drama. I connected most deeply with the director's storyline, in part because we are currently living through an era of multiple pandemics and financial insecurity. The director realizes very slowly that his enthusiasm and openness regarding dealing with his own poor mental health is not shared by the people surrounding him; they are very willing to hide his real struggles in order to continue with the business of filmmaking, as if his own feelings are secondary and not primary to the art and industry he loves.

"Irma Vep" streams through HBO Max starting June 6th.

Noe Kamelamela is a reader who reads everything and a writer who writes very little.