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HBO's sly new 'Irma Vep' proves there's still no business like show business

The new HBO miniseries Irma Vep is fascinating and unusual, but so is its lineage. It all started with a French silent movie serial called The Vampires, made in 1916. That serial was about an organization of criminals who terrorized Paris and called themselves the Vampires.

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Other segments from the episode on June 6, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, June 6, 2022: Interview with Dawn Staley; Interview with Neda Toloui-Semnani; Review of Irma Vep

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Today HBO and HBO Max premiere a new series, a co-production in partnership with France's A24. It's called "Irma Vep," and it's a miniseries remake of the 1996 film of the same name by French director Olivier Assayas. He directed this new remake as well, which stars Alicia Vikander from "Ex Machina." She plays an actress coming to Paris to play a challenging new role. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: The new HBO miniseries "Irma Vep" is fascinating and unusual, but so is its lineage. It all started with a French silent movie serial called "The Vampires" made in 1916. That serial was about an organization of criminals who terrorized Paris and called themselves The Vampires. One of their leaders and inspirations was a woman named Irma Vep, who was evil and seductive and often wore a form-fitting catsuit. After more than a century, I don't think I need to issue a spoiler alert. But the letters in Irma Vep, when rearranged, spell out the word vampire.

In 1996, French director Olivier Assayas saluted this serial by making a film called "Irma Vep" about the making of a new movie version of "The Vampires." His film within a film starred Hong Kong movie star Maggie Cheung as herself coming to Paris to star as Irma Vep in this new French film. It was part-comedy, part-satire of the film industry and had a lot to say about both the impact of cinema and the conflicts between creativity and commerce.

The level of creativity in the 1996 "Irma Vep" movie was in itself dazzling. So why would that film's creator and director, more than 25 years later, feel the need to revisit his own story? Based on the first four episodes of HBO's "Irma Vep" provided for preview, the answer is clear. The movie industry has changed radically in the interim, but the types of people making those films have not. And a TV miniseries with more time to pursue subplots and enrich characters makes this new "Irma Vep" even better than the original. Alicia Vikander, an Oscar winner for "The Danish Girl" and the star of "Ex Machina," plays Mira, the actress imported to Paris to star in this new period recreation of "The Vampires." Vincent Macaigne plays her director, Rene, whom she doesn't meet until she visits the set on her first day.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "IRMA VEP")

ALICIA VIKANDER: (As Mira) So how's it been going so far? Are you happy?

VINCENT MACAIGNE: (As Rene Vidal) Oh, Mira, I have some bad news for you. I'm never happy. I try happiness, but it's just not for me.

VIKANDER: (As Mira) OK, so let me put it this way. Is everything going according to plan?

MACAIGNE: (As Rene Vidal) There is no plan.

VIKANDER: (As Mira) No plan.

MACAIGNE: (As Rene Vidal) No plan, no. I hate when there is a plan. My job is to screw the plan.

VIKANDER: (As Mira) Maybe I can help you with that.

BIANCULLI: The HBO miniseries, like the "Irma Vep" film, tracks the difficulties involved in mounting a new version of "The Vampires." Once again, as in the movie, excerpts from the vintage serial are shown alongside new footage, but this time the recreations are more numerous and more ambitious and more beautifully filmed. It all looks lavish and lovely. When Mira dons her catsuit, she moves and acts like a woman possessed, which turns out to be part of the story. Also expanded for this miniseries are the various subplots - actors who want meatier roles, producers with other motives or deals in play and a Hollywood agent played by Carrie Brownstein who is pushing Mira to star in a new superhero movie as a female Silver Surfer.

It's often very funny, but somehow it all seems believable. So do all the romantic conflicts connecting the on-camera stars and their supporting assistants and crew members. It's like a show business version of "Downton Abbey" with the upstairs and downstairs folks constantly shifting power roles, as in this scene, when Mira is visited on set by her former assistant, Laurie, who also happens to be her former lover. Laurie, played by Adria Arjona, shows up to tempt Mira but doesn't stay long.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "IRMA VEP")

ADRIA ARJONA: (As Laurie) Do you want me back? Say it.

VIKANDER: (As Mira) I want you back, please.

ARJONA: (As Laurie) Say it again.

VIKANDER: (As Mira) Please, Laurie, I want you back.

ARJONA: (As Laurie) God, you're sexy when you beg. But I have to go.

BIANCULLI: Some scenes, like that one, are playful and sexy. Others are flat-out funny, like when the director, Rene, insists his eight-part remake of "The Vampires" is a movie cut into little bits, not a TV series. There's very modern talk about global box office blockbusters and intimacy coordinators, but all of it is presented not only with wit but with genuine affection. Olivier Assayas was a French film critic before he became a filmmaker, and it's obvious he loves what he's doing. With this new "Irma Vep" series, I love what he's doing, too.

GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. He reviewed the new HBO series "Irma Vep." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, my guest will be Sam Jay. She's a comic, writer and actor, former writer for "Saturday Night Live" and now has her own show, "Pause With Sam Jay" on HBO. A lot of her comedy relates to being a Black masculine-of-center lesbian who didn't come out until her early 20s. Her latest standup special, "3 In The Morning," is streaming on Netflix. I hope you'll join us. FRESH AIR'S executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF DON STIERNBERG, RUSTY HOLLOWAY AND JEFF JENKINS' "TOPSY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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