The Immortal Story (1968) | Orson Welles’ mythical love story is a rare beauty
‘A sumptuous experience’ Time Out
Orson Welles wrote, starred, directed and narrated this 60-minute period drama on a shoestring for French TV, based on a novel by Isak Dinesen (the pseudonym for Danish author, Karen Blixen), whom he greatly admired, and who is best known for her autobiographical novel Out of Africa.
In Macao, 1860, the wealthy, elderly Mr Clay (Orson Welles) lives out his days by having his loyal Polish clerk Levinsky (Roger Coggio) read out his business exploits from his account books.
One night, Levinsky breaks the monotony by recounting a tale told by sailors about a rich man who paid a poor sailor five guineas to father a child with his young wife. With no heir of his own, and having complete faith in his own omnipotence, Mr Clay then resolves to make the legend fact…
Invited by Levinsky to play the heroine in this ‘comedy with the devil’, the enigmatic Viriginie (Jeanne Moreau) agrees to spend one night in her former family home – but only to get back at Mr Clay whom she blames for her father’s bankruptcy and suicide. ‘Full of the juices of life’, Danish sailor Paul (Norman Eshley), who once spent a year alone on a desert island, is Mr Clay’s intended young stud.
But despite his wealth and power, Mr Clay cannot control the outcome of their union, and this night is set to bring about the final judgement on the wealthy merchant…
Welles’ presence dominates The Immortal Story, which centres on loneliness and regret, but it isn’t as depressing as it sounds. It may be a little too slow-paced and theatrical for some tastes, but this is more than made up for by the poetic script, the exotic setting (Chinchón, near Madrid, stands in for Macao), and the sumptuous camerawork. Every frame looks like a Old Masters painting shot through a dreamlike gauze, and this is courtesy of Willy Kurant, who also worked with Jean-Luc Godard and Alain Robbe-Grillet (so he knows his stuff).
Welles’ brooding performance aside, the film’s other highlight is Jeanne Moreau. At 40, she may not look anywhere near the 17 years that her character is meant to be, but she illicits such a cool sensuality in the role, that it seems perfect for Welles’ bittersweet tale.
And playing the blonde sailor whom Mr Clay picks up at the port, Norman Eshley bears a striking similarity (both in looks and character) to John Phillip Law’s blind angel Pygar in Barbarella, and Terence Stamp’s seductive vistor in Pasolini’s Teorema. Is it a coincidence that all these films came out in 1968, or were scruffy blonde, boyish-looking men just in vogue at the time? Eight years after this film, Eshley pulled on some clerical robes (and some weight) to appear in Pete Walker’s 1976 shocker House of Mortal Sin.
For it’s 1969 US release, The Immortal Story appeared in a double-bill with Luis Buñuel’s satirical modern fable, Simon of the Desert. Now, there’s one deserving of a brand new HD restoration – anyone?
The Immortal Story is available on DVD in the UK from Mr Bongo Films
Posted on June 29, 2015, in Must-See, World Cinema and tagged 1960s period drama, Chinchón, Isak Dinesen, Jeanne Moreau, Karen Blixen, Must See, Orson Welles, The Immortal Story, World Cinema. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.