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Irma Vep Episode 5: “Hypnotic Eyes”

Photograph: HBO

The following contains spoilers for Irma Vep Episode 5, “Hypnotic Eyes” (written and directed by Olivier Assayas)


“Hypnotic Eyes” opens with a gaze. The gaze belongs to Vampires arch-rival Moreno, he of those infamous hypnotic eyes. It’s one that reminds of the centrality of the gaze to so much film theory writer-director Olivier Assayas’s characters will soon discuss, and it’s a superpower that suggests those serial cliffhangers and specially-enhanced characters Les vampires director Louis Feuillade created in the 1910s were really not all that unlike today’s modern Marvel heroes. So much has changed, and so little.

And with this week’s installment, Assayas’s band of filmmakers—the director René Vidal (Vincent Macaigne), star Mira Harberg (Alicia Vikander), co-stars Edmond (Vincent Lacoste), Gottfried (Lars Eidinger), Cynthia (Fala Chen), and Robert (Hippolyte Girardot), producer Gregory, financier Gautier (Pascal Gregory), and the crew—find themselves even deeper in controversy and entanglement. This week’s episode looks back to the distant past of Feuillade and his co-star Musidora’s time more so than it does Assayas’s own 1996 film starring Maggie Cheung.

René Vidal this week is shooting what looks to be a pivotal scene in his remake of Les vampires as Irma Vep. Moreno, the vampire played by Gottfried, will capture Irma, gas her unconscious, and then use his powers of hypnosis. “It has to be sexy,” René tells Mira, Irma’s portrayer. Once on set, René tells Gottfried to surprise Mira with his physical presence, and on first take Mira appears more than a little miffed at being manhandled by the much larger actor. René, as he has done in nearly every episode, and sometimes to disastrous results, asks for greater physicality in subsequent takes, suggesting the scene has to be “more dreamlike, more fluid”; Mira, ever the professional, swats away the makeup-appliers and lint-roller-wielders and tells Moreno, “You just grab me with the scarf, and I’ll do the rest.”

A second take ensues, and there will be many others. But blocking the scene isn’t Mira’s only concern. During a break, she’s in tears, apparently regretting having had sex with former lover Eamonn (Tom Sturridge), whose new partner had just suffered a miscarriage, at the end of Episode 4. Her assistant, Regina, gives her a pep talk and a long hug, a sincere show of emotional support that gets Mira back on set to finish filming the scene.

Mira (Alicia Harberg) talks with Regina (Devon Ross).
Mira finds solace in the support of her assistant Regina (Devon Ross). Photo: HBO.

To what degree Mira has agency here, as a woman who is the star but subject to the camera’s gaze and the director’s whim, is the question Assayas seems to ask with what plays out next. The crew is on the a 15th take, suggesting the scene has not yet gone according to Vidal’s satisfaction. Gottfried-as-Moreno captures Mira-as-Irma once again, gasses her unconscious, grazes her lip and then, this time, fondles her breast. A behind-the-scenes cut shows Vidal assiduously tracing Gottfried/Moreno’s fingertips on his display monitor. I should note there did not appear to be any discussion of this last element of the scene, no on-set intimacy coordinator, no consent on Mira’s part to being touched in this way.

as Moreno, Gottfried (Lars Eidinger) caresses an unconscious Irma Vep, played by Mira (Alicia Vikander)
After multiple takes, Gottfried (Lars Eidinger) and Mira (Alicia Vikander) complete a difficult scene. Photo: HBO.

But it seems, at least for the moment, to have satisfied Vidal’s need for the scene to be “sexy,” as he told Mira earlier. While the director presses briefly for one additional take before being rebuffed by all, who tell him the take “worked,” he finally relents. And apparently, the scene did work. At least that’s the reaction of those soon shown watching the dailies, including René, Edmond and his wife, the director of photography, and other various crew members. “It’s super hot!” exclaims Edmond’s wife, who seems especially thrilled that the actor is working with the famous international star.

A man and two women look at an image on a phone.
Everyone’s enthralled by the dailies of the scene between Gottfried’s Moreno and Mira’s Irma Vep. Photo: HBO.

And the scene is also super problematic. It might be sexy, but it’s also more than a little gropey and  rapey. Moreno drugs Irma and molests her. Let’s pause to remember this is an industry where powerful men like Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby preyed on dozens of young women for sexual favor. The veteran actor Robert Danjou, whom René had dismissed earlier, is enlisted to bring the crew’s concerns to the director. He and his cohorts feel the scene is demeaning to women and should not be arousing. René counters, first, that he is simply being faithful to Feuillade (which feels deceitful, since there was no breast fondling in Les vampires), then that it is the purpose of cinema to arouse. “Of course I get off on it!” he exclaims. “If I don’t who will?” and then, finally, what he considers a mic-drop of a rhetorical question: “Shouldn’t movies get people off?”

Should they?

It’s been a long while since they have. Films like Feuillade’s necessitated governing censorship boards that would oversee films’ production and distribution, and in America the Hays Code specifically forbade films that presented explicitly sexual content (among other things, including depictions of “miscegenation” and bestiality). While the 1980s and 1990s were rife with erotic thrillers linking sex with violence, in the decades since films have generally become less and less erotic in nature, with PG-rated superheroic exploits crowding smaller fare out of multiplexes and consigning those rare erotic thrillers to direct-to-streaming releases. If René Vidal thinks cinema “should get people off,” his seems a tenet no longer much in favor, a relic of eras gone by.

Whether or not it should be, one wonders if cinema can be erotic without victims. Mira seems wholly in possession of her faculties and untroubled by the scene, but less than a decade ago French stars Léa Seydoux and Adèle Exarchopoulos later reported they were appalled by their treatment by the director Abdellatif Kechiche on the set of the steamy Blue Is the Warmest Color. While René does not seem to have exhausted and tormented his star, his treatment of actors ranges from the casually dismissive to intentionally endangering. If René is remaking a film from 1915, he seems to be making it with the sensibilities of a director from an era other than the contemporary present, where on-set intimacy coordinators choreograph and block nearly every onscreen movement.

The set of René’s Irma Vep seems almost divided in two, with one group, led by Robert, convinced the scene must be reshot (though it could just as easily be dialed down in edit), and another, led by René, who seems to have the backing of his stars Mira and Gottfried, convinced it must stay. Defending himself, René leans into the backstory of the making of Les vampires, noting how its infamous star Musidora herself appealed to the chief of police following the production’s having been shut down for its licentiousness. A scene unfolds of Mira, playing Musidora, doing just that, in an antiquated color palette and 4:3 aspect ratio, and it seems to spark another idea.

René stays up all night writing a new scene, one which will dispatch his new nemesis Robert, leaving René free to fire the actor from his role. And, so it would seem, remove the conflict on set, as all along, Robert has held an inflated notion of his importance to the production and of his character’s importance to the narrative. Since Feuillade had had multiple characters play the role of the Grand Vampire, René’s rationale makes perfect sense: he’ll simply be faithful to the original. Meanwhile, producer Gregory and financier Gautier affirm that René is not in charge of casting and that the director himself might need to be replaced.

Once again we go behind the scenes to witness the production, at least as René sees it, of Louis Feuillade’s Les vampires. It’s the director’s revenge as Vidal, playing Feuillade, assigns Musidora (played by Mira) to kill the Grand Vampire (played by Robert) with a surprise volley of gunshots. Vindictively, René then dispatches the actor by assigning him his last paycheck. Problem solved? Hardly likely, with three episodes to go and a skeptical financier followed by the actor’s last paycheck. Still, Assayas’s deft maneuvering of this script through multiple timelines, with his cast playing actors playing characters—and now their portrayers as well!—remains great metatextual fun.

As Musidora, Mira (Alicia Vikander) dispatches The Grand Vampire (played by Hippolyte Girardot as Robert Danjou) with a volley of gunshots on the set of Les vampires.
As Musidora, Mira (Alicia Vikander) dispatches The Grand Vampire (played by Hippolyte Girardot as Robert Danjou) with a volley of gunshots on the set of Les vampires. Photo: HBO.

Mira, regretting her reunion sex with Eamonn, dispatches him with a similar efficiency, texting him not to contact her again. Later, dressed in her Irma Vep catsuit, she stalks the Parisian rooftops, sneaks into an apartment, pilfers a watch and listens to what sounds like a couple having sex. The costume, it seems, emboldens her to act more and more like the fictional character it represents. Panicking, she flees, leaving behind the watch.

The next day, it appears it’s time to shoot the very scene that unfolded earlier: the one René just scripted, with Mira-as-Musidora shooting Robert-as-Grand Vampire. Zoe arrives at Mira’s trailer. Mira tries on the dress and Zoe is pleased. She says Mira’s sexy, then fetches the gun for the scene from a drawer. Zoe reminds Mira of the “next time” she had promised her earlier, and Mira is forced to let her down, again, though a little more graciously this time. “I like you, I genuinely do. But it’s not my world,” she says. “I mean Paris, René, Irma Vep …” Her voice trails as she turns away.

The episode ends on Mira’s enigmatic, rueful smile (and hypnotic eyes, perhaps?) as The Kinks’ “Village Green” plays. Less jaunty and sanguine than the uptempo title track of The Village Green Preservation Society, its narrator reflects on a lost love in his quaint village, pining for a simpler past in a modern world gone too far awry with complexity. This version, an orchestration performed by Ray Davies with the Crouch End Orchestral Chorus, amplifies the song’s haunting reverie. When Mira says Paris is not her world, Davies’ lyrics likewise suggest a person feeling sadly out of place and out of time.

Alicia Vikander as Mira, dressed in costume as Miradora.
“It’s not my world,” concludes Mira (Alicia Vikander). Photo: HBO.

But she’s a professional, and duty calls. Off she goes, in wardrobe, gun in hand, to shoot the new scene René has concocted to dispatch thorn-in-the-side Robert.

A combustible set, a frayed director, an emotionally fragile star, several disgruntled and disenfranchised actors, a divided crew, a wary producer, a skeptical financier, and a gun.

What could go wrong?

On the set of René Vidal’s Irma Vep, much has, and more likely will. And along the way, Assayas, Vikander, and the rest of the contemporary crew are delivering a delightful, thought-provoking treatise on modern filmmaking, one that reflects on the past while informing the present.


Episode 6 of Irma Vep, “The Thunder Master,” airs Monday, July 11, on HBO and HBO Max.

Written by J Paul Johnson

J Paul Johnson is Executive Editor and a writer-reviewer at Film Obsessive. A retired professor emeritus of film studies and an avid cinephile, collector, and curator, his interests range from classical Hollywood melodrama and genre films to world and independent cinemas and documentary.

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    • Thanks, Tom, for your compliment and for reading 25yl/Film Obsessive. I find the series occasionally frustrating but highly entertaining and thought-provoking, so I am happy to review and recap!

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