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Essay film shot for TV including Orson Welles reflections on Othello close to the Moviola, a chat with Hilton Edwards and Micheál MacLiammóir and fragments of a conversation with the audience in Boston after a screening of the film.
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 Originally made for French TV, it was later released in theaters.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 »
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.
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