In retrospect, The Immortal Story (1968) is a fitting capstone to Orson Welles’ illustrious yet highly compromised directorial career, a filmography lodged beneath the shadow of his early monolithic achievement, Citizen Kane (1941). An adaptation of a story by Danish author Karen Blixen (better known for her pseudonym, Isak Dinesen), it was filmed for French television and was meant to be the first in a series of continued adaptations of her work (filming commenced for one day on its direct follow-up, The Heroine, meant to star Welles’ lover, Hungarian actress Oja Kodar). As fate would have it, this project would be the final completed narrative feature from Welles (though famously he mounted other productions, such as The Deep and The Other Side of the Wind, the latter reconstituted from recently discovered prints, however, and will supposedly be released in the near future, neither completed due to various funding issues), as well as the only color film from the great auteur, a significant aspect considering he abhorred how color technology tended to distract audiences from the actors on screen. Contemplative and elliptically concerned with the overlapping happenstance of reality vs. imagination, the film is a forlorn love letter to the nature of storytelling.
Mr. Clay (Welles), a wealthy, ailing merchant in 19th century Macao keeps to himself despite murmurs within the local community. Without any real heirs and recognizing his end is nigh, Clay convinces his apathetic, disillusioned bookkeeper Levinsky (Roger Coggio) to help him mount a desired scheme of his, to bring a famed urban legend amongst sailors to life. A time worn tale about an old rich man paying five guineas to a swarthy young sailor to impregnate his wife gets a perverse re-telling in Clay’s gnarled hands when he makes Levinsky request the willing woman to be Virginie (Jeanne Moreau), a beautiful courtesan, as well as the daughter of an old business partner he brought to financial ruin, and in whose house he now lives. And as for the other major player in his scheme, Clay spies a destitute Englishman on the streets of Macao, a young sailor (Norman Eshley) who has recently returned as a shipwreck survivor on an island.
The differentiation between creator and the created is a central conceit in The Immortal Story, which is a title one could apply to any such narrative which has secured a placement in an intergenerational zeitgeist. Likewise, a storyteller, like his or her story, becomes an actively immortal participant in this equation, and so Welles’ Mr. Clay, a man named for the wet, robust matter which helps the make-up of the ground beneath our feet, is a metaphor for the filmmaker himself, a man facing his imminent demise and attempting to control an aspect of existence from beyond the grave. There’s a bit of extra density considering the young English sailor is also a stand in for Mr. Clay’s bygone youth, as subtle allusions are made to the old man having experienced something similar to the scenario he’s actively concocting. “He’s full of the juices of life,” he growls, before drifting off into an aside about love and friendship, those desirable states of youth which only result in the dissolution of people, right through their very bones. Death, and what occupies our time until we get to its doorstep, are tangible realities, but the act of storytelling, the art of creation, is to distill an essence for future generations.
While the mere presence of Welles and this project’s placement in his filmography elevates this subject matter in retrospect, he’s hardly the most provocative visual subject in The Immortal Story. Instead, DP Willy Kurant (Godard’s Masculine Feminine, Pialat’s Under the Sun of Satan) fixates mightily on an entrancing Jeanne Moreau as a fading beauty, close to the end of her prime, and a blue-eyed, blond maned Norman Eshley who recalls the gawky attractiveness of a young Donald Sutherland (who, in case you forgot, was Fellini’s controversial choice to play Casanova).
Moreau, getting a much more significant role than her supporting turn in Welles’ adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial (1962) or as prostitute Doll Tearsheet in Chimes at Midnight (1965), is a ghostly figure existing amongst the dilapidated wealth of Macao, where her once successful father was ruined by Clay. The indecent proposal perhaps holds as much interest for her because it affords her the ability to revisit her childhood home, a crumbling mansion now occupied solely by Mr. Clay and his nebbish bookkeeper. The three supporting characters coaxed into playing a part in Clay’s orchestration have all been adversely affected by significant slings and arrows. Paul the sailor is the survivor of a shipwreck, having escaped a desert island, while Levinsky’s family, Polish Jews, were all wiped out in a pogrom in WWII. Virginie (whose very name would seem to mock the cruel inevitability of time) is at the cusp of losing her desirability, a depleted version of what she could have been as a once wealthy white woman in exotic Macao, forced into furtive relationships with men who cannot afford to be seen buying her gifts in public.
There are many elements of The Immortal Story which should have promised a broader appeal, particularly for its period setting of Macao, the once Portuguese owned trading port which operated under Chinese rule. The location greatly enhanced other English language offerings, like Von Sternberg’s classic 1952 film Macao, starring Jane Russell and Robert Mitchum, which attempted an Anglicized romance in the noir-ish flavor of Casablanca, and pointedly informed the experimental hybrid from Joao Pedro Rodrigues and Joao Rui Guerra da Mata, The Last Time I Saw Macao (2012).
The locale automatically gives the film a heightened exotic flavor, especially considering Welles outlines the whiteness of his principals by featuring a handful of Chinese extras, and, therefore, exemplifies the privileged Euro tradition of the very narrative Mr. Clay is hell-bent on renewing by his own authority. The most important player is that of the sailor, a man whose occupation connotes the essence of a stranger in a strange land. And though both the man and woman are convinced to join together ultimately through the promise of economic gain (note how much more the starting price for Moreau’s Virginie is), both parties cull a higher asking price through their initial denial.
The first significant adaptation of a work by Dinesen, an author who would become more widely renowned in English in the 1980s following the famed autobiographical adaptation Out of Africa (1985), and then Oscar winning Best Foreign Language Film, Babette’s Feast (1987), Welles’ The Immortal Story is a sorrowful and subdued distillation of some of his favorite themes, a mere promise of a series cut short and a peek at the creative fount left unexplored.
Criterion grants the obscure title a new 4K digital transfer, and for an auteur who despised color film, it’s certainly a handsomely handled restoration (they’ve included an alternate French-language version of the film, seemingly for easy comparison). Picture and sound quality are impressive, and Willy Kurant captures an exotic locale more crumbling and despondent than a thriving port of trade would suggest (a sequence where Moreau stares out at a dilapidated courtyard from her porch, a cheap card table looming in the background immediately jumps out, as does as sequence where Eshelman delivers exposition on his character underneath dramatic red lighting). Audio commentary from 2009 featuring film scholar Adrian Martin is available, as well as several interviews and a 1968 French documentary on the filmmaker.
Directors Francois Riechenbach and Frederic Rossif directed this documentary on Welles to coincide with the airing of The Immortal Story on French television. The forty-two minute portrait is an intriguing snapshot of the auteur, drifting through his filmography and culling contemporary candid interview footage.
The noted television star appears in this 2016 interview courtesy of the Criterion Collection, a fourteen minute segment where the actor reminisces of working with Welles at the age of twenty-one.
DP Willy Kurant discusses the shoot of The Immortal Story in this fifteen minute July 2004 interview.
Welles scholar Francois Thomas discusses the production of The Immortal Story and the director’s fixation on Karen Blixen in this twenty-five minute interview conducted by Criterion in April, 2016.
Ironically, Welles’ Mr. Clay repetitively proclaims his dislike for ‘pretense and prophecy,’ and yet these are the exact elements which inform and guide the dramatic tension of The Immortal Story, a parable about a man who can’t avoid becoming what he hates because it’s what he already is, while the elusiveness of reality and make believe, when filtered through perspective, aren’t always as easily divorced as we’d hope them to be.
Film Review: ★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆