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Irma Vep and Les Vampires: A Long, Weird, and Ghostly Movie History

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Alicia Vikander's head unravels in film strips in Irma Vep 2022

Film is the most haunted of art forms; the ghosts of past movies and actors, like apparitions, inform each new movie, and sometimes a remake can be an exorcism, a way to deal with this haunting and start over. HBO recently began airing its new miniseries Irma Vep (which first premiered at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival) to unanimous critical praise, debuting with a perfect score on Rotten Tomatoes.

“It’s a masterful handling of visual vocabularies,” writes David Cote of The A.V. Club, “arguably the most sophisticated serial moviemaking HBO has ever produced.” That’s certainly high praise, considering the vast pedigree of HBO’s excellent different miniseries, but it’s strangely deserved. It’s doubly strange, because Irma Vep (an anagram for ‘vampire’) is a remake of its director’s own film Irma Vep, which was a movie about remaking the 1915 silent movie serial Les Vampires.

The vampiric onion here contains multiple layers of meta movie magic, and the new Irma Vep

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is brilliantly in dialogue with more than a century of cinema. This is fitting, as writer/director Olivier Assayas was once a film critic for the lauded French magazine Cahiers du Cinema, so his filmography is frequently in conversation with film itself. Another former Cahiers critic-turned-director, the legendary Jean-Luc Godard, once said, “In order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie,” and that seems to be exactly what Assayas has been doing: turning his film criticism into actual film.

Irma Vep may be on television now, but it has a long history. The seed for it was planted with arguably the greatest movie serial ever made, Les Vampires, which helped the medium become such an influence that it would pave the way for television; the seed grew into a flower of a film in the ’90s, a truly international masterpiece with Assayas’ Irma Vep; the flower has now been plucked and placed in the vase of television itself, turning it back into a serial of sorts once again. Here is the strange history of the brilliant Irma Vep, which is a kind of ghostly cinematic history itself.

French director Louis Feuillade, in a filmmaking career of less than 20 years, directed roughly 700 films (the majority of which were shorts) between 1907 and 1924. In this early cinematic era, essentially a wild west of artistry in which there were hardly any real rules, the silent movie serial became immensely popular. Film studios saw the lucrative possibilities of creating multiple installments of the same property after the success of a 1912 two-reeler titled What Happened to Mary? This was before the serialized fictional dramas of radio programs in the 1920s, and obviously long before television; in a sense, the movie serial created episodic TV as we know it.

There was a sudden explosion of movie serials, with some, such as the beloved Perils of Pauline, hitting theaters bi-weekly. Feuillade dove into the serial game with early work like Bout-De-Zan, which consisted of 60 short films about a mischievous little boy between 1912 and 1916. His first big masterpiece came with the 1912 serial Fantomas, which paved the way for mystery thrillers, the spy genre, and even superhero movies to some degree. In 1915, Feuillade’s filmmaking career would be interrupted for service in The Great War, but the director suffered a heart attack. In his time of convalescence, he developed what would become his most well-known masterpiece, Les Vampires.

Related: Here Are 9 of the Best Silent Movies of All Time

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