In the fourth episode of Irma Vep, Olivier Assayas‘s expansive HBO remake of his 1996 film of the same name, René (Vincent Macaigne) has an impossible conversation. The tortured director wakes up from a dream and finds his estranged ex-wife, Jade (Vivian Wu), a retired actor from Hong Kong, sitting in his bedroom.
They talk for the first time in years, making confessions along the way: René says he loved her, but doesn’t remember her well. Jade says she loved him, but she never really knew him. Sometimes he Googles her, but closes the tab before he sees anything. She avoids her movies when they come out. He accuses her of retiring too young. She accuses him of remaking Irma Vep without telling her. “You never responded to my emails,” he says meekly. René then leaves the room to get a cigarette. When he comes back, Jade is gone.
René and Jade are, of course, stand-ins for writer-director Assayas and his ex-wife, actor Maggie Cheung, the original star of his 1996 film Irma Vep. They married in 1998, then divorced in 2001, signing papers on the set of their second film together, Clean. like Irma Vep, clean was internationally acclaimed, earning Cheung the best-actress prize at Cannes. But shortly after the film’s bittersweet victory lap, Cheung retired from cinema, walking away from acting at the height of her career. She and Assayas also became estranged, he says, a fact that has haunted the writer-director for years. (A rep for Cheung has not yet responded to Vanity Fair’s request for comment.) While remaking Irma Vep, he couldn’t avoid his past. So he confronted it on the screen.
“What can I say? Everything is true,” Assayas says. “I became a character in my own [show] and my relationship with Maggie became part of the narrative. I was reproducing the conversation I never had with her that I would have loved to have, somehow.”
In an interview with Vanity Fair, Assayas talks about the rocky emotional journey of remaking Irma Vep, one of the last times he spoke to Cheung, and how he apparently got her approval for the surreal scene.
vanity fair: Irma Vep was well-received when it came out, but it has since developed a cult-like following all over the world. When did you realize it had become a beloved piece of international cinema?
Olivier Assayas: Instantly. We were lucky to have the film chosen for a midnight show at Un Certain Regard in Cannes. The audience loved it. The film was sold all over the world, which was not something I had anticipated. I had no idea the film had that kind of potential. Also, it has this really long shelf life. It has Blu-ray restorations here and there, and it pops up on TV. It’s alive. I don’t feel it has aged.