"Let's say the first version," Alfred Hitchcock told Francois Truffaut, "is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional."
The two filmmakers were talking about The Man Who Knew Too Much, the thriller Hitchcock thought so nice, he made it twice.
The first, 1934 version, is a thoroughly British hostage caper starring Leslie Banks and Edna Best; the second, made in 1956, is a thoroughly American hostage caper starring Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day (it's where Que Sera, Sera comes from).
The portly perfectionist's assessment of his two films with the same name speaks volumes about some auteurs' sense of ownership of certain projects and how some jobs seem to haunt a creative throughout their entire career.
Paul Schrader has been exorcising the same demon for years (Taxi Driver, American Gigolo, Light Sleeper, First Reformed) and long may he continue to spray the holy water about.
Hitchcock's assessment of the self-remake is also a spookily accurate way to describe French director Olivier Assayas and his repossession at the hands of his own ghost, Irma Vep, a new eight-part HBO series about film and fame, now streaming on Foxtel.
Irma Vep is so meta it makes your head spin. It's meta in the superlative; a self-referential rabbit hole plugged with Easter eggs.
It's also very good.
Back in 1996, Assayas made his first version of Irma Vep, a scratchy, grungy take on the formidable female star of revered 1915 silent film series Les Vampires. That film was Assayas' launching pad, but Hitchcock might have called it the work of a talented amateur (Assayas even married his leading lady, something else Hitchcock would have regarded as a rookie error, as envious as he might be).
Irma Vep 2022 is the work of a professional; even better, a professional having fun.
Instead of being consumed by his muse, Assayas allows her to have her wicked way with him while still managing a smirk and roll of the eyes along the way.
The series stars Alicia Vikander as Mira, an actor bored with blockbuster success who seeks industry kudos in taking on something edgy and alternative. Mira takes the responsibility of playing the enigmatic and anagrammatic Irma Vep seriously. Yes, she tells a smarmy Parisian journalist, she has seen the original seven-hour series, three times. Mira is also inspired by the mononymous performer who first took the role in Les Vampires, a movie about a gang of underground thieves. As well as an actor, Musidora was a film critic and director in her own right. Mira shares a respect for Musidora and Louise Feuillade's silent classic with her own director, the slightly loopy, uninsurable Rene played by Vincent Macaigne, yet as much as these pure motivations are brought into the process, forces of modernity conspire to ensure the production is anything but smooth. As well as a pair of co-stars whose messy break-up serves as a constant threat to proceedings, Mira has her own problems in the shape of a former lover hanging around the set like a poltergeist after becoming engaged to the vacuous director of Mira's recent hit movie.
He may be throwing a few diversions around, but Assayas clearly remains obsessed with Irma Vep, the woman, the character, the film - even his ex-wife - and he wants to connect with this otherworldly being with the Ouija/chessboard of players at his disposal. There is, however, precious little sentimentality attached to this obsession. Assayas is happy enough to reach out with the quotidian minutia of the film industry, the dailies of the day.
In this vein, one of the closest things to the sharp series is Michael Winterbottom's Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, the 2005 film about the filming of an unfilmable 18th century novel.
Winterbottom was meta before meta was a thing and the breezy joy of his film belies the hair-shirted self-control required to pull off something so multi-mirrored and self-devouring (Judd Apatow's awful attempt at the genre, The Bubble, shows what happens when you go in armed with little else than hubris and a detrimental case of the yips in the editing suite).
With his own filming of the unfilmable, Assayas, like Winterbottom, understands the journey is more important than the destination.
And in a nice meta-nod to Assayas' "talented amateur" version of Irma Vep, Thurston Moore scores the new series, harking back to the 1996 indie hit when Sonic Youth's Tunic (Song for Karen) accompanied Maggie Cheung skulking about in a catsuit.
Pop has finally eaten itself.
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