The Immortal Story
d. Orson Welles (1968)
Spine: #831
Blu-ray release date: August 30, 2016
Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc.

Orson Welles had been a long-time admirer of Isak Dinesen’s work, even once flying to Denmark to meet her before thinking twice and heading back home realizing he knew and loved the author but did not know the woman. Rather than meet her, then, his hope was to adapt a few of her short stories for an anthology film. Trouble and bad luck, which plagued so many of Welles’ projects, prevented Welles from adapting all but one Dinesen’s stories, The Immortal Story, which came to be Welles’s first color film. The 58-minute film was first broadcast in 1968 on French television, where Welles managed to get the financing as well as the demand that the film be made in color, before playing in theaters (in the United States as part of a double-feature with Luis Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert).

By most accounts, The Immortal Story was not well received as many considered it a disappointing effort from Welles. In The New York Times Renata Adler, for one, criticized the film as “ineffective in a feeble way.” Others went so far as to criticize the directing. But the criticism was not unanimously negative. In The New Yorker Penelope Gilliatt said that the “film is composed with the formal poignancy that Welles commands as no one else in the world can.” And perhaps it’s this — seen as “formal poignancy” here and “feeble” there — that is the most unique and, consequently, divisive aspect of the film. From the first scene, the quiet streets and abrupt dramatic dialogue — formal or feeble — make the film feel more like a dream sequence than anything else, and when that tone never lets up it can be unsettling, even more so when the purpose is not apparent. We have a great opportunity to re-evaluate the film in a new home video release from The Criterion Collection.

The Immortal Story Cover

I myself was one who left my first viewing underwhelmed, feeling confused at what I felt to be an unrelenting lugubrious tone. And yet the film was most certainly unique, and I felt that if I could crack the code, so to say, particularly as it came to the reconciliation of tone and content, then I could see the film as something quite wonderful. I’m not quite there, but so far the project of gaining an appreciation for this film so many were and are disappointed in has been a wonderful experience.

The basic premise of The Immortal Story is quite simple: a wealthy old merchant named Mr. Clay (Orson Welles) lives lonely senescence in an empty but once lavish villa in Macao. His past perhaps haunting him, he asks the only person who seems to have any real contact with him — his clerk Elishama Levinsky (Roger Coggio) — to tell him stories. Levinksy first starts by reading Clay prophesies by Isaiah, but Clay wants none of that. His own future grim, he wants, he says, stories that actually happened. And so Levinsky proceeds to tell Clay about a wealthy man who pays a sailor to impregnate his wife. When Levinksy tells him that it is just a common story, told from ship to ship to give sailors some added, unrealistic, heightened fantasy for their next call at port — it probably never really happened — Clay tells Levinsky to make it happen. So a prostitute named Virginie (Jeanne Moreau) and a young sailor named Paul (Norman Eshley) are hired to play the parts to satisfy an old man’s fear of his own impotence.

The Immortal Story 1

Orson Welles as the haunted Mr. Clay

The story quickly develops character depth as we learn that Virginie has her own ulterior motives for signing up for the part of Mr. Clay’s wife. The young sailor, Paul, is a meandering soul, easily persuaded at first but with his own depths.

The Immortal Story 2

Roger Coggio hiring the lovely Jeanne Moreau

Mr. Clay, though, arrogantly unaware that anyone could have a life apart from the one he’s imagined for them, assumes the enactment of the story will go a certain way, become “true,” at least to the extent he can force this to become true, and then all can go their own way.

The Immortal Story 3

The story, as told by the people acting the parts, turns out to be much more complex than Clay anticipated. Thus, we get a rather wonderful exercise in showing that plot is only so powerful — the story gets told in the details and will always be different.

As I said above, I’m still trying to work through this one. During my first viewing, I strained to see what was going on. During a second, with the added benefit of the supplemental materials on the Criterion disc, I saw its promise and started to admire it, even if I still felt a bit distant and wondered if the pieces really fit together as nicely as some claim. But it is still working on me, and I already feel an enticement I will not resist to a third viewing.

The Criterion Collection edition: This edition comes with two versions of the film, one in English and one in French with English subtitles. I watched only the English-language version, though in his accompanying essay Jonathan Rosenbaum talks about the rather significant differences between the two versions — it’s not just the language apparently.

  • Audio Commentary: The disc comes with a full-length audio commentary from 2005 by film scholar Adrian Martin.
  • Portrait: Orson Welles: This is a 42:53-minute documentary by François Rossif. It was made in 1968 to air alongside The Immortal Story. This is an interesting documentary that, much like the French films of its time, uses unconventional editing and structure to tell its own tale.
  • Norman Eshley: This is a new 14:17-minute interview with the actor who played the young sailor. Though Eshley went from this to have a long career, this was his first role. He talks about how it felt — the anxiety! — to start a career with Orson Welles and Jeanne Moreau.
  • Willy Kurant: This is 15:00-minute interview from 2004 with the director of photography for The Immortal Story. This is a nice look at how Welles worked behind the scenes to structure his shots, making me quite baffled at the criticism that this film is poorly directed.
  • François Thomas: This is a new 25:14-minute interview with Orson Welles scholar Thomas.
  • The disc also comes with a fold-out insert featuring an essay, “Divas and Dandies,” by Jonathan Rosenbaum. This essay is great because it doesn’t simply retell the plot with a few production stories. Rather, while injecting those elements, Rosenbaum, in his usually astute form, analyzes the four characters and their role in the act of story-telling all to tell a larger story about Welles and Dinesen.
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