Most shows fall inside recognizable categories: original stories, spinoffs, docudramas or, increasingly, reboots and revivals.
Then there’s “Irma Vep.” Olivier Assayas’s recent HBO series, starring Alicia Vikander, is more like a braid by which the past and the current are inextricably intertwined. Its origins return greater than a century, though it should be more helpful to begin our story in 1996, when a movie bearing the identical title got here out.
Back then, Assayas was a former critic turned filmmaker with a handful of intimate art-house dramas under his belt. “Irma Vep” brought him international acclaim.
Not since it was a business hit, mind you. The movie “didn’t make exactly a splash on the box office,” the French writer-director said in a video conversation from his office in Paris last month. “It didn’t do this great.”
What “Irma Vep” had in spades, nonetheless, was cool.
This was thanks partly to its meta subject material. The actual-life Hong Kong motion star Maggie Cheung — to whom Assayas was later married for just a few years — played a version of herself shooting a remake of “Les Vampires” (1915-16), a French silent film serial, by Louis Feuillade, a couple of disguise-loving criminal named Irma Vep.
After which there was Assayas’s fingers-in-socket style, which generated such memorable scenes as Cheung anxiously fidgeting in a black latex catsuit as Sonic Youth rained electricity on the soundtrack.
“I believe it’s a movie that plenty of people hold dear, especially since it’s about cinema,” Ravi Nandan, the top of TV at A24, the production company behind the series, said on the phone from Los Angeles. “So people within filmmaking, each Hollywood and independent cinema, have all seen it and loved it.”
“It’s form of like a touchstone in that Truffaut, ‘Day for Night’ form of way,” he added.
The series, which premieres Monday on HBO, shouldn’t be a sequel sliced up into eight episodes; Assayas goes for a literary analogy when trying to clarify the project’s nature. “Turning ‘Irma Vep’ into the brand new ‘Irma Vep’ is like moving from poetry to novel — and to a thick novel,” he said. (While the show works by itself, the matryoshka doll structure is more rewarding if you’ve gotten seen the movie, which is currently streaming on HBO Max and the Criterion Channel.)
That this was not a rehash was amongst the explanations Vikander signed on. “He was like, ‘No, no, it’s only a continuation of it — I’m not finished with it yet, that’s why I’m involved in doing it,’ ” she said in a video chat from London, recalling Assayas’s pitch. “I could see that he had that small fire inside him.”
Another excuse was their friendship: The pair met when he thought he needed to recast his 2016 film “Personal Shopper” because its intended lead, Kristen Stewart, had a scheduling conflict. In the long run, Stewart was in a position to free herself and make that movie, but Assayas and Vikander stayed in contact. When the series took shape, the Swedish actress was his first alternative for the lead character of Mira, a Hollywood star who goes to Paris to shoot a remake of an old silent film serial about — well, you’ve heard this one before.
“I had a sense that she had not unleashed her full potential,” Assayas said of Vikander. “I assumed she’s funny, she’s smart, she’s quick, she has this profound understanding and love of flicks. I felt that the mixture of us two, something could occur.”
Vikander, who first drew wide notice for taking part in an android in “Ex Machina” and won an Academy Award for the period drama “The Danish Girl” (2015), shouldn’t be generally known for lighthearted material. So, the comic dimension of “Irma Vep” was a part of the attraction.
“I used to be longing to try this,” she said, laughing in delight. “And I believe Olivier knew that from knowing me, my private persona. He was like, ‘Yeah, you want to let that out more.’ I believe that that is just the start.”
Within the show, the humor normally bubbles up along side the antics of the French solid and crew Mira is working with, led by the mercurial René Vidal (Vincent Macaigne), a neurotic, cinema-obsessed director who has already made a movie about Irma Vep (starring a Chinese actress named “Jade Lee” as a stand-in for Cheung) and is now back at it with a series. Amusingly, Macaigne’s speaking cadence often appears like Assayas’s, and while the director agrees that he’s partly written himself into René, he said he’s nicer.
“I don’t scream at people, ,” he said, laughing. “I don’t attack my actors.”
Still, it’s clear that parallels between art and life are woven into the brand new show’s fabric. And every iteration of “Irma Vep” brings additional, increasingly complex ripples of self-reference. “I’m a part of the story of the character Irma Vep within the sense that it starts with Louis Feuillade in 1916, and it travels through cinema up to the current,” Assayas said.
“I like the thought of layers of time combining within the movie, which shouldn’t be something you’ll be able to do fairly often,” he continued. “And there’s the connection to my very own work, the way it ages, how I interact with myself 1 / 4 of a century apart, how the events surrounding the film — which, to be transparent, is my marriage to Maggie Cheung — can be something that echoes very profoundly and essentially with the goings-on within the series. And the way also modern cinema has a dialogue with silent film.”
As for Mira, many viewers might assume she’s a stand-in for Stewart — we first see Mira arriving in Paris wearing shades and a slouchy beanie, nursing a broken heart after being dumped by her girlfriend. It’s a resemblance Assayas each soft-pedals and doesn’t refute.
“There’s slightly little bit of it but probably not,” he said. “This was written with Alicia in mind, but then you definately can’t escape the incontrovertible fact that my experience of an American movie star is Kristen Stewart. I don’t know that a lot of them, and he or she’s a friend, and I really like her and I like her. So yes, there should be elements of Kristen — Kristen is haunting the film.”
As for Vikander, her identification along with her character also had limits. “Probably one among the things with Mira that I can mostly relate to is possibly her passionate love for cinema,” she said. “But it surely was also fun doing it with a personality that is sort of different from me.”
But the brand new “Irma Vep” is greater than a series à clef, or a mere patchwork of references to other stars and other movies. Under its playful manner and a few very funny side plots — one, specifically, involves the necessity to source crack cocaine for an addled actor — Assayas continues to explore what was at the center of the 1996 movie.
“The series is concerning the thin line between reality and fantasy; it’s about how all of us live concurrently in a fabric world and an immaterial world,” he said. “While you’re directing, when you find yourself acting, you might be playing a dangerous game, in a certain way, along with your identity — you might be being yourself and you might be being another person, and also you struggle to bring out as much truth as you’ll be able to.”
For Mira, a passageway between her regular life and the land of make-believe is Irma Vep’s catsuit, here rendered not in latex but in a silky fabric closer to the serial’s version. As with the fictionalized Cheung in 1996, the costume connects Mira to Irma. (By now you surely have noticed that their names are an anagram, which is yet one more reference to the source material.)
It comes as little surprise to learn the catsuit’s spell worked on the series’s star, too. “You’re extremely visible since it’s so body-tight, but I also feel like a ninja — I just disappear,” Vikander said. “After I was on this whole black thing, I actually immersed and really enjoyed doing it. It felt just like the physicality of the part.
“It was one among those things that I had thought of so much, but once I first tried on the costume,” she continued, snapping her fingers, “she just appeared.”