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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... Written by
Orson Welles originally planned for this film to be made as part of an anthology of adaptations of stories by Karen Blixen. Originally made for French TV, it was later released in theaters. This movie is available on DVD from The Criterion Collection. See more »
a minor work from Welles that contains a lot under the surface, and a superb Moreau
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.
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