The Immortal Story (1968)

*. It may be immortal, but it’s not a very well known story. I mean film. Thanks to Criterion for putting this one out in such a nice release (with a commentary and lots of extras), because I’d never managed to see it before now.
*. I’ll also confess that I’ve never read the Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen) story it’s based on. I think I should, since it’s the story here that I find to be the movie’s biggest flaw. What Welles saw in Blixen (who he apparently rated only just below Shakespeare) is a mystery to me.
*. I get that the story is meant to be a kind of parable, but of what exactly? Isn’t a parable, especially one presented, as here, in such a bare, minimalist manner, supposed to have at least a surface meaning that is easy to grasp? But what is The Immortal Story about?
*. Take the title. In his commentary, Adrian Martin asks the question of what the immortal story is. He figures it just refers to a man and a woman having sex, which is the most ordinary and natural thing in the world. It is this story that the dried-up Clay wants to (re?)connect himself to.
*. That doesn’t seem right to me. Clay’s purpose is more obscure, having something to do with making a mere story (a fiction) into something true. Does he really care what the particular story is about? Wouldn’t any story do?
*. Then there is the story itself. It’s treated as a running gag that everybody knows it. I think even modern audiences will find it has a familiar ring. An old man pays a young sailor to sleep with his wife.

*. Is that an immortal story? As I understand it, what’s meant by “immortal story” here is one without any known author or original source that re-occurs in different forms in different cultural contexts. Basically it’s an archetype: one of the mythic building blocks of narrative, a part of the collective unconscious.
*. If we allow that the sailor-gigolo story is such an archetype, it seems odd to me that Clay wants to make it true by re-creating a fictional version. I mean, Virginie (Jeanne Moreau) is not his wife. Indeed, it’s not clear to me if he ever even sees her except through the curtain, briefly, in the bedroom scene. So the story isn’t being made true, it’s only being dramatized.

*. Welles rejected the interpretation put to him by Peter Bogdanovich of Clay being the director. I think he was just playing with Bogdanovich. This is obviously the role Clay has in the film: he has the script, he hires the actors, gives them their lines, and oversees the production in every regard.
*. If Clay is not the director then he’s God. Levinsky makes such a parallel explicit in the way he describes Clay as the prime mover in the universe. It’s also suggested by the various thrones Clay occupies. Welles seems to have had a thing for thrones. He might have just thought he looked good in one. Or he might have got tired of standing up for long periods of time.

*. Martin calls Welles “the best commentator on his own work.” It’s hard to agree. In general, I think artists (authors, filmmakers, whatever) are some of the least reliable commentators on their own work. And among unreliable artists, wouldn’t you put Orson Welles in one of the top spots?
*. In sum, I really don’t care for the story. It just seems to be trying too hard to be suggestive of something, but it’s not clear what, and the characters remain merely symbolic. Clay is God the director. Virginie is the fallen woman. Elishama Levinsky (Roger Coggio) is the facilitator. Paul the sailor is . . . what? Everyman I suppose.
*. Are we really supposed to believe that Paul was stranded on a desert island? That sounds like just another immortal story. Though I’ll admit that he does seem like a stranger from another planet.
*. Does that mean Norman Eshley was miscast? I’m inclined to think so. Martin likens him to a gay icon I guess because he seems a bit passive or feminine and his bleached hair looks silly. Plus he’s a sailor. Does that change the story though?
*. If Paul doesn’t look much like a real sailor, he sounds even less like one. What he sounds like is a British stage actor being asked to speak very slowly. And he is not helped by his lines, which make him sound even more like an alien.
*. Apparently the lines were hard to hear as well. As usual the sound was all added postproduction and the synchronization wasn’t right on the English version. Manny Farber found only four of the lines to be audible. He wasn’t missing anything. If not for the music and the nice effects (like the crickets) I honestly think you might enjoy this movie more if you just turn the sound off.

*. If Paul was too grimy and covered in tar to get into Clay’s carriage, don’t you think he might have taken a shower or washed up before he went to bed with Virginie? I mean, you do have to at least try, man.
*. There is, however, no faulting the look of the film. Welles hadn’t done a feature in colour before, and had made comments about how he didn’t like it because it emphasized visual elements over actors (as I think it does here), but he took to the new medium like Michelangelo took to fresco.
*. Cinematographer Willy Kurant praised the framing and composition in particular. He called Welles “very, very rigorous” when it came to such matters, and it shows in nearly every shot. And I have to wonder if this is a dying art. For all the expense and accomplishment that goes into art direction and production design today, who really does framing as good as this? I’m trying to think of recent films that struck me as really accomplished in this regard and not coming up with much. Yet Welles apparently did it on the fly.

*. Speaking of on the fly, damn that fly on the doorjamb in the scene between Virginie and Levinsky at the bedroom door! Or should we see it as a bit of serendipity? I don’t think there’s any way it could have been intentional (you can’t wrangle flies), but is it a flaw? Perhaps we can see it as foreshadowing Clay’s attempt to later be a fly on the wall, observing the bedroom re-enactment.
*. In addition to the framing there is an exotic sense of design (the bedroom as jungle, complete with cricket sounds) and a striking and unorthodox use of colour and lighting. That dining scene made me think of the Red Room on Twin Peaks so much that I think Lynch must have had it in mind, even subconsciously.

*. Colour and lighting are also an integral part of the framing, which is used throughout to create depth of field and a strong sense of space. Zones of colour, light and shade, demark different areas as much as physical boundaries and shapes. A yellow spotlight or a band of shadow are as material as the bend in a tree, a doorway, or the frame of a mirror.
*. I’ve never made a secret of my feeling that Orson Welles was the greatest genius in the history of film, and I think The Immortal Story only underlines this by showing how much he could make out of such unpromising material. It certainly has its flaws, but it’s so smooth, gorgeous, and accomplished in all aspects of the filmmaker’s art that it still invites being studied and enjoyed.

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