The muse and (true) story that inspired Irma Vep

The Irma Vep series is quickly gaining an audience that loves cult content. Starring Alicia Vikander, the HBO Max series is a revisitation of the 1996 film of the same name, in turn, a tribute to the French silent film classic, the 1915 film Les Vampires.

A fan of the work of Louis Feuillade, Olivier Assayas is responsible for transforming his film, which starred Maggie Cheung, into a series, more specifically, in 8 episodes. For anyone who has worked with film production, the behind-the-scenes novelistic conflicts are so precise it’s pure fun.

The plot of Irma Vep revolves around the American star Mira, an actress famous for working in big-box films, who seeks to regain credibility and forget about a recent tabloid scandal. That’s why she accepted to work on a small film in France, a miniseries adaptation of Les Vampires. The 1915 film is about a journalist investigating a gang called The Vampires. It was an incredible success when released during World War I, and made actress Musidora, who played villain Irma Vep, into a fashion icon. In the series, Mira – who we can argue is inspired loosely by Kristen Stewart – deals with the chaos of her personal life as well as filming. In the midst of all this, the series exposes the difficulties of production in current times.

In one scene, Mira explains her fascination with Musidora and her famous black jumpsuit (which gets an updated version). For new generations, the name, makeup, and life of the French star were a mystery, but one that Irma Vep promises to change.

Born Jeanne Roques in Paris in 1889, the artist adopted the pseudonym Musidora to work on stage. French actress, director, writer, producer, and journalist, she contributed to immortalizing the femme fatale archetype, especially in the film Les Vampires. An avid reader, she was the daughter of a composer and a feminist literary critic, who encouraged her to develop a taste for the arts. He debuted on stage at the age of 16, already with the stage name “borrowed” from the novel Fortunio by Théophile Gautier (who we, balletomanes, know is the librettist for the ballet Giselle).

Musidora quickly became a muse for the Surrealist movement and performed in comedies and pantomimes. She starred in one of Colette‘s play, Claudine à Paris, and had a romance with the author’s husband, Henri “Willy” Gauthier-Villars, before meeting, befriending, and collaborating with Colette herself.

Her film debut was in 1913, in Les Misères de l’aiguille, a film produced by the socialist film collective Cinéma du Peuple. Success led her to sign a two-year contract with Gaumont Studios, and between 1914 and 1916, she starred in several comedies and dramas. It was while working at the studio that she met and became friends with Louis Feuillade, author of French cinema successes.

The director invited her to star in his masterpiece, Les Vampires, in which the actress played Irma Vep (an anagram of a vampire), a cabaret singer who is part of the secret society Les Vampires. “The Vampires” were a group of delinquents led by the Great Vampire and had Irma Vep as his second in command. A journalist and his friend become involved in an attempt to expose and stop the group’s crimes. Like the HBO Max series, the film was divided into 10 episodes totaling almost 7 hours in length, so it is considered one of the longest films ever made.

Les Vampires was inspired by a true story, that of the criminal gang known as the Bonnot Gang, a highly organized anarchist group that committed a crime spree in Paris between 1911 and 1912. In Feuillade’s script, there was only the premise of the scene and the actors created the details.

Compared to Theda Bara, Musidora caused a sensation by appearing head-to-toe dressed in a tight black leotard and wearing an executioner’s mask, as well as doing her own stunts as she was an acrobat too. Her characterization in the role made her the most famous vamp villain of early French cinema. The gestures, the makeup, and the different and unforgettable figure of Musidora collaborated to transform the work into a cult. In fact, it was the actress’s popularity that prevented the film from being banned from theaters, after all, the Police condemned the series for its apparent glorification of crime.

It is vital to be photogenic from head to toe. After that, you are allowed to display some measure of talent.


For love, Musidora lived for a while in Spain, where she worked as a screenwriter, director, producer, and interpreter of three films. She went back to France in 1926, and starred in Le berceau de dieu, with Léon Mathot, before abandoning cinema to return to the theater in 1927, the same year she married the doctor Clément Marot. She wrote books, plays, songs, essays, and poems, but left the stage in 1952.

After World War II, she worked at the Cinémathèque Française and helped maintain several films from the silent years. She occasionally worked at the box office and only a few customers recognized her. Musidora died in Paris on December 7, 1957. She was 68 years old.

Now, 65 years after his death, the series’ homage with Alicia Vikander reliving his steps, the name of this star is popularized again, as well as his work. As she deserves.

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