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The Immortal Story

(1968) **** Unrated
58 min. Gaumont. Director: Orson Welles. Cast: Jeanne Moreau, Roger Coggio, Norman Eshley, Fernando Rey, Orson Welles.

/content/films/4951/1.jpg"No man in the world can take a story which people have invented and told and make it happen." The pursuit of an impossible ideal is the central subject of Orson Welles' final completed narrative feature (and his first in color), The Immortal Story. Based on the novella by Isak Dinesen (the pen name of Danish author Karen Blixen), The Immortal Story concerns the ignoble but otherwise Quixotic attempt of a moribund merchant (played by screenwriter-director Welles) to make a legendary story come to life. In a way, that was exactly the task facing Welles as a director of material he adored—Blixen being his favorite author apart from Shakespeare. Although Welles dismissed any autobiographical reading of the film, his connection to the material surely had something to do with his lifelong authorial vocation as a dramatist and filmmaker.

Two cuts exist of The Immortal Story, which Welles produced for French television: a 58-minute English-language version and a 51-minute French-language version with about twelve minutes of alternate takes. Welles' contract enforced his reluctant though entirely effective use of color, and both the source material and initial destination of French television informed the film's tight run time (the film would also receive European and American theatrical distribution). The visual approach may be somewhat simplified by comparison to his other films but remains distinctively Wellesian, with framing reminiscent of films like Touch of Evil and The Trial; cinematographer Willy Kurant collaborated happily with Welles to create a soft, lush look in color that interplayed well with Welles' sometimes stark angles and visual indicators of relative status. All of these factors—and Welles' inspired, intuitive choice of piano selections by Erik Satie—serve the story's gem-like form as a dreamy fable of just-so proportion and asethetics.

Welles transplants Blixen's action from Canton to Macao, which his character in The Lady from Shanghai calls "the wickedest city in the world." Simply established in a few precision shots, the exotic locale hosts the forbidding manse of Welles' Mr. Clay. One night, during a ritual in which Clay's clerk Elishama Levinsky (Roger Coggio) reads his boss old account ledgers, Clay longs for a story. Levinsky offers a bit of Biblical prophecy from Isaiah ("in the wilderness shall waters break out"), but the literal-minded Clay won't have the hopeful speculation. He counters with a story he heard—fifty years earlier, from a sailor—musing that he has the wherewithal to turn story into reality: "I don't like pretense. I don't like prophecies. I like facts. If this story has never happened, now...I want it to happen in real life, to real people."

Naturally, Clay will play the role of a rich old man. He intends to find his own sailor by the harbor, as the old man does in the story, but commands Levinsky to enlist someone to play the story's other role: the old man's young wife. On a whim—and a suspicion she wouldn't refuse the opportunity—Levinsky approaches the woman whose father Clay once drove to destitution and an early grave. This is Virginie (the great French star Jeanne Moreau), who works as a courtesan and lives like a ghost with unfinished business. She indeed relishes the opportunity—yes, there's the cash, but more importantly, there's Levinsky's promise that this folly shall be the end of Clay—but, just as much, she loathes the ideas of this "comedy with the Devil," and, worse, having to set eyes on Clay and the home that once belonged to her father and should belong to her.

With Virginie in place, Clay finds Paul (Norman Exley), a strapping sailor with angelic blond hair and tattered, dirty clothes. Enacting the story, Clay propositions Paul to play his part in the story by sleeping with the old man's "wife" and impregnating her, thus producing an heir to whom the old man can feel good about bequeathing his home and possessions. What befalls Clay, Virginie, Paul and, peripherally, Levinsky suggests that the truest stories tell themselves to their authors, rather than the other way around. This comes as no surprise to Levinsky, who—in symbolic reference to a tapestry—explains, "Sometimes the line in the pattern goes differently to what you expect."

The merchant's impotence in his fancy to be a storytelling puppetmaster derives from his inhumanity (as Welles' voice-over narration says of Clay, "The idea of friendliness had never entered into his scheme of life"), his lack of imagination, and his cynicism. He believes that the only thing that's never disappointed him, or worked to dissolve him, is money ("gold, my young sailor, is solid. It's hard. It's proof against dissolution"). In this sense, Welles' insistence that The Immortal Story isn't about storytelling but rather the pretense of power—playing God imperfectly, foolishly—makes sense. But this literate and richly strange film has layers of meaning available to the viewer.

Surely The Immortal Story asks what drama does to its participants, in the onstage or even offstage playing of roles—"all the world's a stage," after all. The film depicts four people playing along, but at cross purposes, and all of whom are ostensibly freed, if not necessarily to the better, by the end of the process. Blixen and Welles also beg the questions of why we tell stories and what they mean, in the forms of fiction, non-fiction, prophecies, and the lies we tell others and ourselves. For artists, narrative can be something like a religion, suggested in the ritual pace of The Immortal Story and "the immortal story," and in Levinsky's promise "This night will bring about the final judgement." (In the category of life choices, the film also offers that immortal dichotomy of the pursuit of love versus the pursuit of money.)

Welles' commanding presence proves ideal as Clay, weary and alone, madly convinced of his omnipotence, and un-self-consciously struggling against his age and his mortality through his sexually perverse manipulation of younger individuals (especially the sailor, who Clay describes with almost vampiric anticipation: "He's young...full of the juices of life. He has blood in him. I suppose he's got tears"). And though there's no whiff of perversion about Welles' own direction, it's hard not to think of the proverbial "director in winter" living through his young charges when Clay abruptly boasts of "two young, strong and lusty jumping-jacks within this old hand of mine."

Given how fully realized The Immortal Story feels, it's understandable why Italian critic Paolo Mereghetti called it "an absolutely perfect film," despite its generally ho-hum reputation. Mereghetti's assertion that the film is "the transparent sum of all the ideas and anxieties that appear in Welles' oeuvre" can partly be seen in the bookended parallels to Citizen Kane (including the significance of a dropped object—there a snow globe, here a conch shell—that carries mysteries of youth and death, hope and inspiration). As with Welles' artistic output, in The Immortal Story, ostensible failure ain't necessarily so. Clay may not succeed in his own ends, but there is release for all and renewal for some in the passionate "doing" that is "acting," in the process of creation that is storytelling. You can't always get what you want, but as Levinsky says, "It's very hard on people who want things so badly that they can't do without them. If they can't get these things, it's hard. And when they do get them, surely it is very hard."

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Aspect ratios: 1.66:1

Number of discs: 1

Audio: LPCM Mono

Street date: 8/30/2016

Distributor: The Criterion Collection

Criterion does Welles' fanatics a huge solid with its double-whammy of Welles releases in August 2016. Along with a long-awaited proper home-video release of Chimes at Midnight, Criterion gifts us with a beautiful special edition of The Immortal Story. Picture quality is outstanding, with rich color and a nicely resolved image that benefits from natural film grain and impressive detail and texture. One of the film's most commented-on shots (of Clay before a succession of mirrored images) flanges in and out of focus, but I presume this is an unresolvable issue endemic to the source; at any rate, it's a passing issue, and the film surely hasn't looked this good since it was new. The LPCM mono sound is likewise authentic and definitive, with clean and clear delivery of dialogue and music.

The disc includes both cuts of the film, the English-language version coming with the playback option of a 2005 audio commentary with film scholar Adrian Martin, highly recommended for those wanting to engage in the film's themes and place in the Welles oeuvre.

"Orson Welles" (42:53, HD) presents the 1968 François Reichenbach and Frédéric Rossif documentary Portrait: Orson Welles. Though its pretentious, self-consciously arty approach can be a chore at times, the raw material will fascinate Welles fans. Welles makes some choice comments, we see him at work a bit on The Immortal Story, and surely this is the only documentary in which Welles talks us through the making of a salad.

A new interview with "Norman Eshley" (14:17, HD) finds the actor detailing his experiences with Welles, including the making of The Immortal Story and their offset friendship, including a road-not-taken proposal to work closely with Welles on a project that ended up going unrealized.

A 2004 interview with cinematographer "Willy Kurant" (15:00, HD) is equally engaging, if a little technical for those unschooled in cinematography. Kurant explains how he got the job, how he and Welles worked well together, and what Kurant offered as a lenser, including some of his and Welles' specific visual choices.

Lastly, Criterion presents a new interview with Welles scholar "François Thomas" (25:14), who provides a film-historical context for The Immortal Story, from Welles' inspiration to the film's production and reception.

Like all Criterion discs, this one also comes with liner notes, in this case, a fold-out pamphlet with film stills, credits, tech specs and an essay—in this case, by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.


Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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