Never released on home video in North America, Orson Welles' 1968 adaptation of Isak Dinesen's The Immortal Story has long been a missing piece in my Welles' viewing history. Glimpsed only briefly as clips in documentaries about the filmmaker, it remained elusive until Criterion added it to their Hulu Channel [edit: and now BD/DVD].
Clocking in at barely an hour, Welles made the film for French television, and it was intended to be part of a longer anthology of Dinesen adaptations. Like so many other Welles projects, the planned second half fell apart before cameras rolled. What remains, then, is a short curiosity in the great director's canon, far from his best work and possibly the most dispassionate movie he ever directed.
Welles himself stars as Mr. Clay, a rich businessman living in Macao. Old and isolated, he spends his nights compelling his assistant (Roger Coggio) to read to him from his account books. Bored of all the numbers, he begs his servant to tell him a story. In doing so, they discover they both have heard the same urban legend about a millionaire who paid a sailor to impregnate his young wife so that he'd have an heir worthy of inheriting his money. Only, Mr. Clay has always believed the tale to be true. Angry to have this reality removed from him, he vows to make the story actually happen. He will choose a sailor, and the assistant, Levinsky, will find the woman to play the part of his wife.
Levinsky's choice is Virginie Ducrot (Jeanne Moreau), the daughter of a business partner that Clay drove to suicide. Virginie has lived a modest life since, hating the man who now occupies the house where she grew up. Levinsky is surreptitiously offering Virginie a chance at revenge. By having a middle-aged woman pretend to be the wife, he will undermine Clay's "truth."
That is the long and short of The Immortal Story. The film's narrative consists almost entirely of one-on-one conversations between the various characters: Clay and Levinsky, Levinsky and Virginie, Clay and the vagabond sailor (Norman Eshley). Outside of a brief intro where a local merchant (Fernando Rey) gossips about Clay's role in destroying Virginie's family, The Immortal Story is essentially a quartet, with the script working over each character's motivation and their larger interpretation of events. It's all a bit stuffy, and not helped much by the lackluster filmmaking. The camera is mostly stationary, with very simple framing. Outside of a motif where the audience is placed on the outside of an event, peering through gates and curtains and the like, The Immortal Story shows a surprising lack of artistry. Welles was apparently unhappy about having to shoot the film in color, and you can feel his lack of enthusiasm in every scene.
He doesn't fare much better as an actor. He spends most of The Immortal Story sitting down, caked in old man makeup, croaking out his lines like a lethargic bullfrog. Coggio plays off of Welles' exaggeration by going in the opposite direction. He portrays Levinsky with a pronounced reserve.
That means it's up to Jeanne Moreau to carry this thing. It helps that her character has the most depth, as well. The actress is smart and compelling, entwining Virginie's insecurities about age with the bitterness she has for Clay. The only thing the old man manages to create in his endeavor is tenderness between the older woman and the virgin sailor. Moreau's whole being changes in their sequence together, as Virginie has found herself experiencing a real human connection, something she has lacked for a long time. Though, not even Moreau can do much with the embarrassing sex scene, screaming out "It's an earthquake! Did you feel that?" upon climax. Thankfully, this scene, shot in extreme close-ups, is mercifully brief.
Nonsense. It is perhaps Welles's most poetic film, deeply felt, very much in the spirit of Isak Dinesen. Note Welles's disregard of his old favorite 18mm lens, his adoption of intimate 100mm at crucial moments, and the unique way with color. The master is at his most masterly and self-assured in this sad, haunting tale.
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