The Immortal Story
Details: (PG), 58 mins, France, English
Synopsis: Mr. Clay (Orson Welles), a rich old merchant, insists that his Polish clerk, Levinsky (Roger Coggio), read to him from the company's account ledger every night before bed. When he can't sleep one evening, Mr. Clay begins to recount a story about a sailor who is paid to sleep with the wife of a wealthy older man, a story he insists is true. When Levinsky tells Clay the story is in fact a well-known urban legend, Clay becomes obsessed with re-creating the tale; an endeavour which, inevitably, turns upon him.
A rare, made for TV oddity from Mr. Welles.
This short, a little under an hour, feature from Orson Welles, was his first film in colour and was originally produced for French TV in 1966 but did not appear until 1968. Now on DVD in Australia as part of Madman’s excellent director’s series, it’s a welcome release, since it gives Welles fans a chance to experience what was once considered a rare and important work in the director’s oeuvre.
Based on a short story from Anecdotes of Destiny and Ehrengard by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen, the subject of Sydney Pollack’s Out of Africa), the film is, in its quiet, reserved style, a long way from the bizarre energy of say, Confidential Report. But that’s not to suggest it’s any less ‘Wellsian’ in its ideas and approach. As well-known film scholar Adrian Martin argues on the commentary track included here, The Immortal Story is, in part, concerned with the very nature of storytelling, something that Welles was fascinated with his whole life.
The plot explicitly addresses the power of fiction in that it concerns a man who has no respect for tales or ‘story’. Welles himself plays Mr. Clay, a wealthy man who tries to take a famous urban legend and turn it into ‘truth’ in the hope that once the yarn becomes ‘true’ it will cease to exist. Clay uses a ‘fallen’ woman called Virginie (Jeanne Moreau) and a young sailor, Paul (Norman Eshley) in his plot. Roger Coggiol plays Clay’s clerk, Levinsky.
Welles saw the movie as a parable about a man thought to be powerful, but is actually impotent. The Immortal Story aches with aging, decay and death. The temptation for critics and scholars to find a one-to-one relationship between the melancholy nature of much of Welles’ work, like this film, and his personal struggle with making films the way he wanted says Martin, is sometimes overwhelming – and misplaced. Welles was and remained an experimentalist, a non-conformist. And naturally that brought trouble with filmmaking’s power brokers – studios, distributors, financiers. But as Martin maintains Welles did not have just one ‘subject’; his interests were broad. Though The Immortal Story has for years been something of an obscurity Martin says one can find trace elements of its minimalist style in Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence and the work of Raul Ruiz.
Aside from Martin’s truly compelling commentary, which is nothing less than a fascinating and witty discussion about not only the film, but Welles’ life, career, and working methods, the disc includes a French language version of the film and a good essay by scholar Adrian Danks. Disc sound and image are fine, though a little muddy and inconsistent at times, but given the age of the materials this is not surprising.
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