The Portuguese colony of Macao in the 19th century. Mr. Clay is a very rich merchant and the subject of town gossip. He has spent many years in China and is now quite old. He likes his clerk Levinsky to read the company\'s accounts to him at night for relaxation.
Tonight Mr. Clay recounts a true story he heard years before about a rich man who paid a poor sailor 5 guineas to father a child with his beautiful young wife. Levinsky says that\'s a popular old sailor\'s legend and not true. Mr. Clay has no heir for his fortune and no wife either. He resolves to make the story true... Levinsky approaches Virginie, another clerk\'s mistress, and strikes a bargain for 300 guineas. Now to find the sailor...
Jeanne Moreau ... Virginie Ducrot
Orson Welles ... Mr. Charles Clay
Roger Coggio ... Elishama Levinsky
Norman Eshley ... Paul, the sailor
If you looking for action here or, if aware of the plot outline, expect a bit of soft porn, you will be disappointed. \"The Immortal Story\" is more of a visual and acoustic painting than a narrative. Especially since, according to another commentator, this was actor-director Welles\' first venture into colour, he has used the unaccustomed medium masterfully both in his interiors and exteriors, and with the addition of the strident and insistent cicadas and refreshing dawn chorus has rendered the subtropical oriental night and its golden dawn beautifully realistic.
The Orson Welles\' character, Charles Clay, a powerful expatriate merchant established in Macao, approaching seventy and dying from gout, is like a motionless fat spider in the centre of his web who controls everything and everybody within his range. As a control -freak he even wishes to make factual a much told sailors\' yarn about a couple manipulated through bribes and some coercion to go to bed together. He is obsessed with this story but cannot stand fiction, (he rails at his personal assistant, the Jew Lewinsky, against the biblical prophecies he reads to his master). Facts he already controls, fiction must also come under his sway.
The enforced but, from the point of view of both the bully Clay and his victims, successful liaison between Jeanne Moreau and the young Danish sailor (satisfactorily played by an obscure British actor), the latter losing his virginity in this encounter, is tasteful, beautiful and not in the least prurient. That is except for the D.O.M. (écouteur?)listening at the keyhole, whose nocturnal presence we, however, spontaneously forget about. The couple appear to fall in love under these strange circumstances, though future relations seem to be highly doubtful. Just a couple of points bother me here: when the sailor tells Moreau (whose character\'s name is significantly but inappropriately Virginie) that he is 17 and is informed by her that she also is 17, it is quite evident that both, and especially Mlle. Moreau, are much older Maybe we are to assume that she lied to the ingenuous young man in order not to spoil the idyllic illusion of love-at-first-sight. The other point worrying me is why the attentive Chinese servants, besides feeding him, neglect to give the young man a good bath as well, especially as he had refrained from entering Clay\'s open carriage explaining that he was covered in tar and would soil the upholstery. And so he enters the nuptial chamber in his original torn and filthy clothes. Who knows, perhaps a whiff of tar has aphrodisiac properties...
Lewinsky the down-trodden but still spunky assistant/companion to Clay is well played by Roger Coggio. A Jew - Moreau calls him \"the wandering Jew\" - he has lost his parents in an Eastern European pogrom, and is inured to the blows of fate, and politely imperturbable when upbraided by his imperious master or slapped in the face by an outraged Moreau.
Fernando Rey, for decades Spain\'s foremost actor, equally able to perform in French and English as well as his native tongue, is included in the cast in a cameo part merely to spread the gossip about Clay\'s/Welles\' ruthless machinations. I suppose the French TV company who commissioned this film was able to afford his services too because the cast was so small: apart from those mentioned above, there are only a few Caucasian listeners in Rey\'s audience, and half-a-dozen silent Chinese menials who would have cost little to hire.
The location on which the film was shot I was unable to ascertain, but it could have been anywhere in the world where there are large elegant 19th Century European houses, the colonial Portuguese element being supplied by one company sign with the word for export in Portuguese and the Chinese by the garish signs and notices with which the street is cluttered. Perhaps it is the old quarter of Marseilles.
I saw this film for the first time yesterday on the local Spanish channel which runs a series of classics in the original language, so that I saw it in French. This meant that Welles\' unmistakable resonant and commanding basso profundo, so appropriate to this rôle was dubbed by a relatively mild-mannered francophone with a much higher register. With his over-brimming culture and long European residence, it seems very likely that Welles could have managed the French dialogue himself, just as Jeanne Moreau can perform equally well in English. Maybe he didn\'t because he was a perfectionist, even though the character portrayed is not a native French speaker
There are just two further points I should like to make that nobody else has touched on thus far:
First, the story for the script is from the pen of Danish raconteuse Karen Blixen, magnificently portrayed by Meryl Streep in \"Out of Africa\", who, Sheherezade-like, beguiled her lover and his friend with her fluent and fascinating tales.
Secondly, at the end of the film, the departing Dane about to take ship presents the old man with a mother-of-pearl-like conch he had acquired during his year of solitude on a desert island, and said by him to be virtually unique. As the young man moves away with a backward glance through a wood whose floor is auspiciously tinged with brightness by the rising sun, the shining conch falls to the floor of the verandah from the dead fingers of the merchant. No equivalent of \"Rosebud\" is uttered, but the incident is obviously a reprise of the ending of \"Citizen Kane\", Welles\' early black-and-white triumph.
Initially, this film might seem dismayingly disappointing. Based on an Isak Dinesen novel, it appears not to transcend its literary origins. Narrative and dialogue are quoted verbatim (and often mumbled or too fast) to accompanying pictures. The pacing is very slow for a Welles film, with little of his trademark, disruptive editing. The symbolism seems literary, rather than cinematic.
And yet the film is, under this surface, recognisably Wellesian - the old man who has amassed great wealth at the expense of an emotional life, who seeks to control others; the use of storytelling as a metaphor; the idea of the author as a repressive God, who makes his characters conform to his will; the subsequent destruction of the author who uses his power to repress, not express, or create, who does not realise that making a story \'real\', in the fatuous hope for immortality, can only mean that the author becomes superfluous; the loyal assistant/friend whose life has been emotionally deadened by the need to serve (and suppress moral qualms about) the great man; the tone of the film, nocturnal, quiet, still, cicadas resounding, suffused with sterility and death.
Even the look of the film, seemingly precious and over-formal, is quietly Wellesian (no, not an oxymoron!) - the use of locale as a private labyrinth (there is very little of the Orient here, in spite of attempts at local colour - its anguish is very European and decadent); the idea of the dark, fettered house as a figure for the mind or the soul; the use of found locations, especially old buildings, suggesting older, better, nobler days, also irremovable reminders of decline; the restrained bursts of disruptive editing in the elegant design; the deep-focus long-shots form distorted angles, revealing characters to be mere pawns, geometric shapes in a total, hostile design; the idea of the film being the final dream of a dying man. There is also, in Welles\' first non-black-and-white film, a gorgeous use of deep colours.
The thrust of the film remains too literary to be a total success, but it is exquisitely beautiful and mournful. All three characters are locked in typical Wellesian solipsism, all are alone, creating myths and stories to cover up the truth of their own failure to shore against the ruins. The thwarted possibility of escape only makes the entrapment all the more suffocating. And yet, there is an otherworldly quality to the central bedroom sequence, aided by Jeanne Moreau\'s astonishing performance, that raises the film into the realm of the magical. The rarefied atmosphere of the film is thus entirely appropriate.
If it weren\'t for The Immortal Story popping up once on TCM and by chance getting to tape it, I\'m not sure if I would ever see the Immortal Story due to its lack of circulation. Not too ironic, or a coincidence more likely, to what the film is about. In line with a couple of Welles\'s other works like Mr. Arkadin and F For Fake, The Immortal Story is about storytelling, or how extraordinary things that happen are sometimes less so when taken into account for what\'s really underneath them- the person telling it, or being told it, and if it really makes sense or sounds like it isn\'t b.s. Welles\'s character Mr. Clay, taken from a novel by Isak Denison, probably doesn\'t have any good stories to tell, and more than likely doesn\'t like hearing them. \"I don\'t like pretense, and I don\'t like prophecy. I want facts,\" he says to his butler/servant Levinsky (Robert Croggio), and after so much time hearing his company\'s accounts and finances- a very empty task for a codger like Clay to hear- he decides on something that might get the juices going in his head, to make real a story that\'s been told many many times, about the sailor getting paid by some rich man to sleep with his wife. It isn\'t \'Indecent Proposal\', however, as Moreau\'s character happens to be in her own was as notorious as Clay, and has a history of sorts with Clay and her family.
Matter of fact, the main thrust of Immortal Story is that stories are never fool-proof, and that\'s what makes them interesting/fun to those who hear them for years and years; it can\'t *really* happen, otherwise there\'s a falsity that defeats the whole purpose of it being spontaneous. So, a lot ends up being more fascinating for what is in the subtext this time, even if I still loved looking at Welles\'s direction, which is always an incredible feat of ingenuity, not to mention here when it\'s mostly talking heads. He uses color very well here, too, as it\'s his first time using shades of brown and gray for the Macao town parts, little flourishes of color that become darkened when around Clay, and the characters of Virginie (Moreau) and the Sailor (Norman Eshley) who compared to Clay are vibrant in appearance. Much of the dialog is exquisite and unlike in some of Welles\'s other works not exactly dense and rapid-fire in taking it all in. There\'s even an elegiac tone going on here, as Clay is far from a Kane or Sheriff in Touch of Evil- he\'s dying, really, or at least mad, and there\'s a loneliness to his \'what-I-say-will-be-done\' manner of speaking to his servant. Welles taps into that completely, even if it takes a little getting used to over the hour-long running time.
The other actors are hit or miss, however, with Moreau being the clear top choice in this field. With still some of those same melancholy beats she had when she appeared in French New Wave pictures, she taps into Virgine as someone who\'s more complex (albeit in small part my plot convenience, oddly enough) than someone like Clay would\'ve thought in his factual-type realm. The facts for her make things awful to bear, even under payment, and Moreau also gets to reveal a deep level of sexuality that gives Welles another challenge never done before for him- how to handle a sex scene (this includes a great exchange of dialog between Virgine and Paul about an earthquake). The men, however, are a little more shaky. Coggio isn\'t bad as Levinsky, but by nature of his character he has to be a stiff kind of guy, and sometimes it works well (his reaction to Clay\'s demand to re-enact this \'story\' is very good), and sometimes not (his delivery of the lines, which aren\'t well-written, at the very end is unbelievable). I also found Eshly to be like an extra Welles might\'ve picked up from Fellini\'s production of Satyricon with the pretty-boy men, this time with an awkward English accent. Only when looking at him under the surface did things seem a little intriguing, but on the surface ineffectual.
But for the patient Welles fan- yes, patient even at 62 minutes- The Immortal Story puts another good notch on the filmmaker/actor\'s club of of work. It deals with a subject that I could think and rouse about for hours, about what it is to live a life where things aren\'t predictable, or when things are mandated and put in rigid structure what it means to want to find why a story isn\'t made true or not. Why does Clay want the story to be real, and for only one person to say that it\'s for real or not? The final revelation from the sailor, of course, brilliantly contradicts everything that came before. Facts (or rather, the usual exposition), of course, aren\'t usually the best parts of any story, as any filmmaker can tell you.
* Welles originally planned for The Immortal Story to be made as part of an anthology of adaptations of stories by Dinesen. Originally made for French TV, later released in theatres. At the current time, unavailable in any form in the American home video market.