A fog hangs over The Immortal Story, Orson Welles’s last completed fictional film, which was shot for French television. The characters have their heads in a past that merges with the fiction of their self-mythology. We hear tale after tale over the course of the film—one religious, a few legendary, many personal—which collectively offer an alternatingly tangible and elusive emotional reality, erected on a foundation of alienation and regret. Adapted from an Isak Dinesen story, The Immortal Story pivots on the classic Welles theme of a great man gone to seed, disconnected from society, wondering what pleasures he missed for his obsession with greatness. (Did he love? Was he loved?) The driving plot of the film is relatively simple, but it’s freighted with so much subtext and meaning as to take on the mythological contours of the stories that lend contradictory meanings to the characters’ lives.
Mr. Clay (Welles) is a merchant in 19th-century Macao, living out the last days of his life in a mansion that once belonged to a partner he destroyed. We learn the story of Clay and his partner, Ducrot, through subjective hearsay that’s circled and confirmed through more hearsay. As Clay’s carriage pulls into the city during the film’s opening, Welles cuts to a handful of people on the street as they discuss Ducrot’s ruination. Clay is said to have bankrupted the man over a debt of only 300 guineas, and the information matters less to us than the implications of Welles’s fractured editing, which, in tandem with the tilted close-ups of the actors, suggests a funhouse mirror. The editing announces itself, violating the stately images of Clay’s arrival, offering a breach of one point of view by another. Mirrors are a significant symbol in Welles’s cinema, and this suggestion of a mirror in the framing and the editing is complemented by the dialogue. The mirrors of Ducrot’s former home are said to have once “reflected only happy and affectionate scenes,” but it will be Clay’s curse to see only Ducrot’s murderer in their reflection.
Welles then cuts to Clay eating dinner in front of a mirror, his profile reflected in a manner that recalls a famous image from Citizen Kane. The accumulating obviousness of this sequence is vintage Welles: a mirror suggestion, followed by a discussion of mirrors, followed by a literal image of mirrors that evokes a scene from the most famous work of this film’s maker. One of Welles’s great talents is his ability to render overt symbolism giddy and intoxicating, his formalism is so bold, playful, and exhilarating in its showmanship that it achieves an unusual kind of paradoxical subtlety. Underneath the ostentatious formal effects are quieter emotional crescendos, cross-currents, and rhymes that reveal themselves in multiple viewings.
At times, The Immortal Story is so surpassingly, heartbreakingly beautiful that it’s difficult to parse even the top layer of the narrative. In this 58-minute film, Welles achieves a resonant, diaphanous delicacy that’s rare even for him. The characters keep talking, paired off in alternating exchanges, but we’re often distracted by the sensorial brilliance. Clay has a clerk who helps him manage his accounts, Levinsky (Roger Coggio), who tells the old man of a prophecy uttered by Isaiah. Deliberately missing the humility of which the prophecy speaks, Clay voices contempt for stories that haven’t already happened, threatened by the lack of control inherent in the theoretical. Clay tells Levinsky a story, then, of a poor sailor who’s propositioned by a rich old man to come back with him to his mansion, where the sailor sleeps with the man’s beautiful young wife for five guineas.
Clay has taken this story literally, as it appeals to his vanity and sexual self-loathing. Levinsky tells Clay that the story is what we might call an urban legend, told by sailors to satiate their loneliness and poverty. Clay decides that he will use his resources to make this story a reality, finding a real sailor, and recruiting a woman to play his wife. Much of the film is comprised of the negotiations necessary to rendering from this desire a simulation, a fictional drama hinging on exploitation that ironically plays to Clay’s self-centered need to inflict generosity on someone as a matter of closure.
The illusory tale of the sailor is bound up intrinsically with several other stories: of Clay and Ducrot; of Levinsky, who fled the pogroms in Poland, losing his family in the process; of Virginie (Jeanne Moreau), Ducrot’s bitter and romantically disappointed daughter, who’s recruited to play Clay’s wife; and of a real sailor, Paul (Norman Eshley), who regales Virginie with a variety of other fantasies and songs on the night they are to make love so as to consummate the climax of the story within the story. This structure is overwhelming, suggesting a great wealth of baggage in a fleet matter of minutes. Viewers may find themselves seizing on individual moments, which are magnified by the depth and audacity of Welles’s formal imagination.
When Levinsky negotiates with Virginie on the streets of Macao, a handheld camera follows them in an unbroken shot that emphasizes the props that have been placed to establish this setting as a set, a construct, a city of our dreams, with lanterns and people brushing by the protagonists toward the foreground in an eye-tickling effect that’s familiar to Welles’s work. Erik Satie’s piano music establishes an aura of longing, as Welles’s narration contextualizes Levinsky and Virginie’s relationship with a curt succinctness, complemented by the jump cuts of the editing, that’s moving in its matter-of-factness. Levinsky and Virginie stroll over to a courtyard, leading to an astonishing image of them walking against a stone wall enveloped by smoke. In another setting they talk of patterns, of quilts, of stories—and they might as well be discussing Welles’s own obsessively sculptural aesthetic.
Welles mixes past tropes with innovations, such as his first use of color, which he initially protested, but soon embraced as a way to achieve great depth of field despite the dreamy shallow focus he was employing with cinematographer Willy Kurant. Bold yellows splash certain backgrounds, giving Clay a tellingly jaundiced look, and there’s a conversation between Clay and Paul that’s set in a dining room done up in red curtains, giving it the hellish look of a background from a Mario Bava giallo, anticipating the purgatorial aesthetic of the Red Room in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks series.
When Clay dies, he drops a large seashell while sitting in a throne, which brings to mind Charles Foster Kane, in Citizen Kane, dropping a snow globe as he himself dies. Whether Welles intended it or not, The Immortal Story has autobiographical weight, as it’s a film about storytelling that doubles back on the thematic and formal significance of everything Welles created prior to it, just as Clay doubles back on his own life. Though he loathed this sort of interpretation of his career, Welles is ultimately indistinguishable from Clay, as both are simultaneous termites and pioneers.
The image has a gritty tactility that occasionally offers an unintended peak behind the curtain of the film’s making; for instance, one can discern the putty nose on Orson Welles’s face. But that sort of hazard is familiar to restorations of aging films, and the grit is attractive and representative of the sense of specificity and texture that Welles sought to achieve as a filmmaker. The actors’ skin is precisely captured, most movingly that of Jeanne Moreau, who plays a much younger character than she was at the time, and who’s often somewhat obscured by shadow and soft lighting. Primary colors are vibrant and hallucinatory, and blacks are strong and well-differentiated. The monaural soundtrack subtly honors the intricate multi-layering for which Welles’s films are known, including (to quote examples discussed by Welles scholar François Thomas in an interview included on this disc) the use of restructured Erik Satie music, or the bridging of the sounds of crickets’ chirping to represent the consummation of a largely unseen sex act. The sonic plane of each sound is vividly evident, yielding an exactingly gorgeous mix.
"Portrait: Orson Welles," a 1968 documentary directed by François Reichenbach and Frédérick Rossif, is one of the best films about its subject that I've seen, splitting interviews with Welles into resonant shards that testify to the performative element of his public sheen while allowing telling bits concerning his personality and working methods to emerge. There's a particularly incredible sequence composed of a long and slanted close-up of Welles's face as he answers questions about his art and influences. Welles's witty, surprisingly earnest answers are less revealing than the body language of his face, which is soft, commanding, and vulnerable. "Portrait" was originally aired with The Immortal Story on a French TV station, and these two films still make for an ideal double feature.
Also poignant is the new interview with Norman Eshley, who was an unseasoned, theatrically trained actor when he found himself making his film debut at the age of 21 in a love scene with Jeanne Moreau directed by Welles. Eshley describes the experience as head-spinning, especially Welles's eventual offer to take the young man on as a son and a protégé for two years, and to teach him everything Welles knew about filmmaking. Eshley declined, and the regret palpably haunts him 50 years later.
The interview from 2004 with cinematographer Willy Kurant and the new interview with Welles scholar François Thomas focus more on the film's craft and construction, with Kurant elaborating on Welles's frustration with critics over-analyzing his work. The striking handheld shot near the beginning of the film? It was handheld because the tracks for the camera had failed to arrive. Kurant also discusses Welles's striking awareness of the relationship between the foreground and background of a respective shot, while Thomas talks at length about the film's inventive and subtly experimental sound mix. Rounding out this exceptional package is a passionate and erudite audio commentary with Adrian Martin, an alternate French-language cut of the film, and an essay by critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.
Criterion has performed an invaluable service to cinephilia by refurbishing another of Orson Welles’s obscure late-career masterworks, outfitting a sumptuous transfer with a handful of illuminating supplements.