Orson Welles had long been a vocal fan of Karen Blixen when French television approached him about adapting one of her stories. The director of Citizen Kane had been hoping to produce a series of films based upon Blixen’s writings but this was the late-1960s, his reputation was on the wane and the only offer on the table was a two-part anthology film to be shot in colour. Welles was not a fan of colour, he claimed that it did wonderful things for sets and scenery but served only to distract from an actor’s performance. Whether by accident or intent, Welles’ peculiar attitude to the use of colour resulted in a decidedly lugubrious little film: Rarely has so much colour and visual opulence resulted in such an acute sense of spiritual desiccation.
Made for very little money, The Immortal Story was shot in and around Welles’ home near Madrid. Doubling for the Chinese port of Macao, the small town of Chinchón was dressed with a few lanterns and extras hired straight out of the local Chinese restaurants. Despite working to a very tight budget, Welles creates a haunting portrait of Macao as a succession of abandoned buildings and rust-red empty streets. We hear talk of wealth and of bustling ports but we never see them and therein lays the point…
The film revolves around an elderly merchant by the name of Clay (Welles). Once an ambitious man and now a hugely wealthy man, Clay destroyed his rivals and built an empire only to wind up with no wife, no family and no friends. In fact, his only company is a private secretary by the name of Levinsky (Roger Coggio) who wants nothing more from life than a chance to be completely and utterly alone. One evening after work, Clay happens to recall an old story told by sailors: Once upon a time, there was an old man who neither liked nor trusted his family. Desperate for an heir to whom he could leave his vast fortune, the old man decided to pay a handsome young sailor to come and impregnate his beautiful trophy wife.
Clay explains that the story has been in circulation for years as it is a perfect fantasy for men who are forever short of cash and deprived of female companionship by virtue of making their living on the high-seas. Rich in money and poor in time, Clay decides to make this fantasy a reality by arranging for a young sailor to impregnate a beautiful woman. The secretary Levinsky takes it upon himself to arrange the affair but the little man’s misanthropic tendencies result not in fantasy made reality but in a perfect moment of unhappiness and yearning.
Levinsky begins by approaching the daughter of Clay’s greatest rival. Virginie Ducrot (Jeanne Moreau) was left to fend for herself on the mean streets of Macao when Clay’s victory over her father drove the man first to bankruptcy and then to suicide. Once beautiful, happy and wealthy, Virginie is now little more than an aging sex-worker who has been left bitter and isolated by an obsession with the past.
One evening, when driving home in his carriage, Clay comes across a handsome Scandinavian sailor by the name of Paul (Norman Eshley). Clay invites the young man back to his house and plies him with food and wine before asking him to impregnate a beautiful woman. Paul explains that he was once shipwrecked on a desert island and dreamed of girls but is now forced to think about food, shelter and the money required to return to Denmark. He agrees to Clay’s plan only after being reminded that he is no longer on a desert island.
Welles shoots the interior of his home in a way that accentuates not only the luxuriant décor but also the cavernous nature of many rooms. Forever shooting through railings and at odd angles, Welles turns his own home into something resembling a prison or a tomb… as though it were the place where happiness goes to die.
The film unpacks Blixen’s story with an astonishing lightness of touch. Welles’ direction emphasises mood while he and his fellow actors deliver monologues that are tinged with both regret and sadness. What Welles refuses to do is to spell out the point of the story which is that every one of these characters is just one step away from happiness: Clay is terribly alone and yet his house is suddenly full of people, Virginie has spent her life wanting to return to her childhood home and now she’s there, Paul spent a year dreaming of girls and now he has one, and Levinsky’s desire to be completely alone is what all of the others seem to detest the most about their own lives.
The Immortal Story is a beautifully made, beautifully acted and genuinely challenging film despite being little more than an hour long, a fascinating look at what kind of director Orson Welles became towards the end of his career. However, it is a shame that the disc comes with no extras or booklets as viewers would really have benefited from some help putting the film into some sort of context. There is great beauty and profundity in this film but old Orson certainly makes you work for it!