It’s one of those salutary coincidences of movie history that the final narrative film completed by Orson Welles would turn out to be this rumination on an old man’s obsession with storytelling. It’s not that Welles was exactly elderly at the time (he was 51 when he made it), but there’s a matter-of-fact finality to the work that becomes just a touch spooky in retrospect. Commissioned by the French national television agency as a Jeanne Moreau vehicle to commemorate the transition to colour television, The Immortal Story required that Welles work in colour for the first time, catalyzing a fairly dramatic evolution of his style. But it gave him the opportunity to adapt a short story by Karen Blixen (a.k.a. Isak Dinesen), one of his favourite writers, and to work again with Moreau, one of his favourite actors. Less than an hour long, it has remained an obscure film for a variety of reasons, but it’s intermittently remarkable despite its modesty.
Set near the Port of Macau in the late 19th century, The Immortal Story was actually shot in France and Spain, in part at Welles’s own house near Madrid. It features just four characters: Mr. Clay (Welles), a wealthy merchant; Clay’s clerk, Elishama (Roger Coggio); a local woman, Virginie (Moreau); and a strapping 17-year-old sailor, Paul (Norman Eshley). Clay is, for some reason, determined to bring to life an apparently apocryphal tale told at sea about a rich man who gave a sailor, a stranger to him, five guinea to bed his wife and conceive for him an heir. Elishama ventures into town to recruit Virginie, whom he knows through her dalliances with a co-worker, to play the part of Clay’s wife. Clay himself spots Paul at the side of the road and lures him back to his mansion with the promise of gold. After a hearty meal, Paul is sent into the bedroom, where he and Virginie are expected to fulfill their coital obligations.
It sounds sleazy, and it is. Welles has no interest in making Clay a sympathetic character. Adorned with heavy old-age make-up, including a fake nose, he portrays Clay as a cranky and friendless old man. The whole charade Clay concocts may represent his attempt to assert his force against destiny itself, or to gain some personal feeling of power by subjecting Virginie to his will. But his stated motivation is much simpler: He’s one of those nonfiction fans who doesn’t see the point in made-up stories. His chief form of entertainment is reliving past financial glories by having Elishama read aloud to him from his old account books; when Elishama reads from scripture instead, it only annoys Clay. “I don’t like prophecies,” he declares. “People should only record things when they’ve already happened.” Thus Clay is determined to legitimize this particular fiction by making it real.
Clay is obviously the director’s on-screen surrogate, a character who plays god by setting a stage and then ordering a small cast to do his bidding. While it’s tempting to analyze the picture in those terms, that doesn’t get you very far beyond the obvious parable about the director as powerful but isolated puppet-master, a rich man who enters his twilight years bereft of both love and imagination. (“In one way or the other,” Elishama promises Virginie as the deal is made, “this thing will be the end of him.”) The Immortal Story is more about the players drawn into Clay’s orbit and the relationships they forge, however briefly, through telling their own stories. Paul plans to take his payment and buy a sturdy sailing boat for himself. Virginie intends to use her reward to start a new life in a different land. They assert the reality of their lives before coming together in Mr. Clay’s drama, and they vouch for the futures they imagine once free of his demands. It’s not Shakespeare, but it’s enough.
If the content is a little thin, the form is positively sumptuous. The Immortal Story looks unlike any Welles film before it, owing a lot, no doubt, to the arrival of cinematographer Willy Kurant, who had already shot features for Agnes Varda and Jean-Luc Godard. His presence must have helped Welles confidently expand his visual palette while keeping the imagery TV-friendly. There is no impressionist chiaroscuro here; rather, large swathes of soft light suffuse the sets, giving the richly-coloured images a painterly quality and letting them roll off gently into the generous shadows surrounding the characters. During the long sequence at the movie’s heart, depicting the consummation of Clay’s scheme, the dark shadows disappear almost entirely in favour of bright, gauzy shots. At the climactic moment, the bedroom vanishes entirely, replaced by a transporting, pearlescent background glow. Welles cuts immediately to a darker shot of Clay, staring dully into the camera from the depths of his listlessness.
Welles’s shot compositions have rarely been more rigorous and evocative than they are here. One shot begins with the camera looking down on the cards spread out in front of Virginie as she plays solitaire; a gentle tilt upwards reveals that she is sitting on an outdoor balcony as the solitary figure of Elishama, her persistent visitor, comes into frame standing alone in the courtyard, some distance off, wearing a black coat and hat. When Virginie disrobes and Elishama tactfully leaves the room, he pulls the door only partway closed so that, though facing away from her, he can still hear her speaking to him. The camera, of course, is able to peer inside so that we see both of their faces in conversation. In another shot, we can barely make out Clay’s hulking figure through lacework and the dark shadow he casts while trying to peer into the bedroom. Much is made of doorways, windows, and mirrors, often in tableaux that echo famous moments from other Welles movies. One scene is set against the prison-like fence that blocks entry to the estate that Clay appropriated from Virginie’s father, and I had to wonder if, like the ones surrounding Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu, those iron bars serve to trap Clay inside as well as to keep intruders out. Meanwhile, the sound design recalls Welles’s wealth of experience in radio, with minor variations in sound effects (notably the chirping crickets whose songs soundtrack the lovemaking scene) helping develop the mood.
Tempting though it is to describe The Immortal Story as minor Orson Welles, there is of course pretty much no such thing by definition. If nothing else, it’s an example of how much a master filmmaker can achieve with very little in the way of resources–it’s one of the more beautiful films of the 1960s. The narrative may seem frustratingly slight, but in truth it’s a story about everything that matters to Welles. Though the director himself denied it in interviews, The Immortal Story is clearly a cautionary tale about an artist who lacks the imagination and essential humanity to free himself from his solipsism. It’s mindful of the exploitative power of monetary transactions, which it yokes unflatteringly to the authority and indulgence of the director. Yet it’s also about the limits of power, and anyone’s inability to stanch the flow of virility and vigour from their own bodies. And then it’s about sex and love, or at least the semblance of love, and the inchoate yearnings in the hearts of the young–not to mention the way the piling-on of years and decades adds urgency to those desires. It’s a Welles movie that murmurs rather than roars, that feels not monumental but haunting and ephemeral. If it’s the least of his completed films, it’s still a rewarding work from one of the most accomplished artists in the history of the medium.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Criterion’s release of The Immortal Story has been a long time coming, and Welles fans are unlikely to be disappointed. Per the Blu-ray Disc’s liner notes, the camera negative and a 35mm interpositive were scanned at 4K, and a digital restoration was conducted at 2K. The resulting 1.66:1, 1080p transfer is excellent. I was a little put off by a shot early on featuring Welles sitting between two mirrors, in which the blacks almost looked crushed, but I needn’t have worried. The image has retained ample shadow detail, and its characteristics have been tweaked to ensure that plenty of picture information is visible way down there in the toe of the image. Colours are assertive but not too brilliant–the red drapes and wallpaper of Clay’s house are never allowed to reach, say, Cries and Whispers levels of saturation. A few shots with areas of deliberately bright light are rendered with fairly high contrast, but most of the time the picture is a darker affair, with low to middling contrasts that convey an especially filmlike look and feel. Both English-language and French-language versions of the film (the latter a slightly different cut, shorter by seven minutes) are included, with no noteworthy differences in picture quality. Criterion does not indicate that Willy Kurant (or anyone else from the Welles camp) approved the transfer, but there is no reason to think that any bad decisions were made.
Audio is a similar story. All of the movie’s dialogue and sound effects were recorded in post, which gives the attendant monaural (uncompressed PCM) tracks a somewhat sterile quality that’s nonetheless entirely appropriate. The mix does reveal subtle differences in recording quality from take to take, and the French-language track is a tad more chaotic in this regard.
Leading the raft of supplements is “Portrait: Orson Welles” (41 mins., HD), an impressionistic documentary from 1968 that features what appears to be fairly candid and valuable footage of Welles dining with friends, responding to questions from critics and interviewers, and working behind the scenes of The Immortal Story. As usual in this kind of material, Welles comes off as a gregarious raconteur, passionately recounting stories from the world of filmmaking and beyond. I loved the bit where he mocks Winston Churchill’s taste in movies (in excellent French!), and his recollection of screening unfinished newsreel footage for Churchill is particularly memorable. Quizzed on his formative filmgoing years, Welles confesses to not having seen much. “I never go to see good films,” he explains. “I have a vision, a very personal vision, and each film, each good film, attacks this personal vision. It changes it.”
Other extras include an astute audio commentary (dating back to 2009) with Australian critic Adrian Martin, who mounts a defense of Welles against a school of critical thought that considers him to be suffering from a kind of creative malaise in the section of his career that The Immortal Story kicked off. He also makes a fairly strong case for The Immortal Story proper, highlighting Welles’s impressive command of shot blocking, cinematic space, and aural atmospherics. Especially at under an hour in length, it’s a rewarding listen. Also batting for the film is longtime Welles partisan Jonathan Rosenbaum, whose booklet essay goes deeper into Welles’s fondness for Karen Blixen’s work, considers some of the circumstances of the production, and posits Welles as a humanist extraordinaire who identifies strongly with each of The Immortal Story’s characters. It’s a good piece that gets at the heart of what makes Welles’s work special, especially to his biggest fans.
If you want a more just-the-facts approach, Francois Thomas, co-author of the 2008 Phaidon tome Orson Welles at Work, goes on at some length (25 mins., HD), in subtitled French, in a new interview on the history of the project. He sheds further light on some of the challenges Welles faced during the shoot and considers its troubled post-production process. (The film missed its original airdate and a planned French theatrical release was delayed until 1976, by which time the more playful and flamboyant F for Fake had more or less overshadowed it.)
A 2004 interview with Willy Kurant (15 mins.) is a trove of technical information. He describes using Colortran fixtures to generate soft light instead of the harder light cast by more commonly used fresnel-style lamps, a technique he picked up from the French New Wave. Further, he says he told Welles that when using soft light, the thoughtful employment of opposing colours could be a substitute for the use of heavy contrast in black-and-white. Kurant also helped pioneer the use of Kodatrace paper as a “frost” element to further diffuse the light, which is now a common technique. “It was kind of a Mickey-mouse thing,” he says, “but Orson liked it.” Finally, an HD interview new to this edition sees actor Norman Eshley looking back on The Immortal Story as his first film gig. (It runs 14 minutes.) He remembers trying to bluff his way through a conversation about French playwright Jean Anouilh and explains why, when Welles offered to take him under his wing and teach him everything he would need to know about filmmaking, he said “no.”