The Immortal Story, 1968. Written and directed by Orson Welles, from a novella by Isak Dinesen (Karen Blixen). Starring Jeanne Moreau, Roger Coggio, Norman Eshley, and Orson Welles.
With our books and interviews, our videotapes and compact discs, we can try to reach back in time and speak with a dead man when we are confused. We can sit late at night and watch a movie so blurry and off-color we wonder if we’re not locked in some deep cave on another planet, or in another lifetime, the faint signal of some desperate soul, alive or dead, trying to communicate on some profound level. With The Immortal Story, made for French television by an old man who was once in love with Karen Blixen, Orson Welles set aside much of his tricky shots, his excessive thespianship, and gave us a story that shakes us to the core, and makes watching film almost unbearable.
In the city of Macao, there is an old man named Mr. Clay. Once, ages ago, he gypped his partner out of his share of their fortune; the partner eventually committed suicide. Now an ancient man who sits amongst his wealth, Clay has lapsed into ruminating. Unable to sleep, he asks his bookkeeper, Mr. Levinsky, to read to him from the day’s receipts in order to eventually fall asleep. Clay wonders if there is nothing more than business to occupy one’s time, and Levinsky pulls a crumpled bible tract from his pocket and reads to him from the prophet Isaiah. But Clay is baffled: what is this prophecy? Ridiculousness, that’s what–nothing should be written that has not happened. Then he remembers an odd story:
Once, there was a destitute sailor resting on a curb in a seaside town. A wealthy man in a cart pulls up and asks him if he would like to earn five guineas–a fortune. The sailor agrees, and the man takes the poor fellow to his home. There the sailor is fed from silver trays and crystal goblets, everything lit by candles on gold candlesticks. The old man complains that he has not long to live, that he would like to bequeath his millions to a child, but has no child, only a young wife. After dinner, the young man is led into the bedroom, where rests the wife…
At this point the clerk interrupts to say that he has heard the story: everyone has. It’s as ubiquitous as it is apocryphal. Banging his cane on the marble floor, Clay makes his demand: I want this to happen to someone in real life.
And so the story goes: Levinsky, armed with hundreds of guineas, convinces Virginie, the daughter of Clay’s dead partner, to pretend to be his wife. Later, a sailor is enlisted to make love to the ‘wife’, who is much older than the young man. But it matters not, for he is enthralled, having spent the better part of his teenage years (he is seventeen) stranded on a desert island, wishing for a love like hers.
In the end, after the story is consummated, the sailor is forced to return to his ship and leave his love behind. He will never tell his story to a living soul, for who would believe it? Besides, it is his, to cherish in his heart forever.
When it is over, Mr. Clay is dead. Levinsky is out of a job, and sits listening to a story inside a conch shell that the sailor has left behind. Virginie, standing in the distance, looks for her lover in vain.
What are we to take from this? Supposedly, Welles fell in love with Blixen from reading her work, and once even traveled to Denmark to meet her. He would have been young; she would have been in her forties. Unable to bring himself to make her acquaintance (he knew the power of imagination versus real life), Orson spent decades writing her a love letter, which he never delivered. He repaid her with this film.
Or so Welles tells us. For, like everything of his, it could be nothing more than beautiful embellishment. Which is often enough.
For with every story we watch, with every movie and television show, ask yourself if we erode the importance of the life we lead to the point where real life becomes nothing more than a painful reach toward dreamland? Or does the story enrich our understanding of life, turning pain and heartbreak, the desire for that which is unattainable into a thing which can be understood and endured? Welles refused to discuss this little movie, ignoring its obvious connection to his life as a storyteller. Or a lover.
But The Immortal Story defies this analysis, anyway. It is slow, uneven, harshly lit, and probably unavailable to any but the most passionate and dogged of Welles’ admirers (it took me forever to get my copy, which, like a dream, will leave me in a matter of days). Scary in its implication, The Immortal Story spins in the nether regions of the film world, a dark ex-planet like Pluto, ignored, but majestic in its own mysterious way. Like the young sailor, I remain baffled and afraid and, ultimately, moved.