Timeless Tale: Orson Welles’ The Immortal Story (1968) – DVD review
Welles in miniature: a dense, ironic meditation on the very notion of achieving immortality on film.
The Immortal Story
(Orson Welles, 1968)
By the late 1960s, Orson Welles was indeed immortal. Citizen Kane had taken its place at the top of the Sight & Sound critics’ poll, a position that it would keep for 50 years, and its maker hallowed as one of the all-time great filmmakers. And yet Welles himself couldn’t catch a break. By now a nomadic figure scrabbling together funding for films wherever and whenever he could make them, his adaptation of Isak Dinesen’s (aka Karen Blixen’s) short story is everything Welles’ cinema wasn’t: made for TV, shot in colour, shorter than his other films and, of course, complete.
That gap – between reality and legend; between wealth and poverty; between The Immortal Story’s humble narrative and its brilliance as a metaphor for Welles’ later career – fuels the film. Freed from the often messy tribulations of his recent work, this is a dense, focused film that achieves its depth from the fable-like simplicity of the story, and also its uncanny rhymes and counterpoints with its maker’s life.
Published as part of the same short story collection as Babette’s Feast, Blixen tells of a rich, elderly merchant who decides to make true an apocryphal story (about a man who pays a sailor to bed his young wife), simply because he cannot understand the notion of an imagined event. It is a dream of control and a satire of rampant wealth, and fascinating because Welles is somewhere between the merchant (who, of course, he plays) and the youngsters.
Like the latter, Welles was beholden to men like the merchant for patronage; and no doubt Welles saw parallels too with Jeanne Moreau’s Virginie, the daughter of the business partner abandoned by the merchant, who reluctantly prostitutes herself for a shot at revenge. There is a mordant wit in the film’s endless talk of account books, and the notion that the facts must be proven to assuage the greed of shareholders. It’s Hollywood talk, of course.
And yet, it is the merchant, the typically Quixotic, Wellesian figure, who dares to tilt at mythology itself by demanding a staged performance of a story to make it come true. What else is this but filmmaking? The film plays with the irony of this idea’s inherent failure, and the limitation of the very medium within which Welles worked. Since all of the participants realise what is happening, can there be any truth beyond the prosaic recording that the event took place?
The briefest emotional connection takes place when the sailor and Virginie have sex, an act whose inner secrets cinema is famously unable to illuminate (although interestingly, The Immortal Story was made just before the decade in which film at least made a serious attempt at filming sex). And then there’s the punchline, in which the sailor refuses to tell the story any more. Why bother? Now it has been filmed, the myriad possibilities of word of mouth have been replaced by the one, definitive vision.
And that big theme in Welles’ work – of the men who must have their say, and their way – comes full circle. The merchant is Kane, and Hank Quinlan, and Macbeth, purveyors of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Susan Alexander will be a star; the suspect will be guilty; Duncan will be killed. For good measure, the merchant lives in a house of mirrors, reflecting his own limited horizons back at him, recalling Citizen Kane and The Lady From Shanghai. The ideas and associations are so rich that Welles, perhaps uncharacteristically, allows events to play out in the same minor key as Erik Satie’s plaintive piano score. Welles wasn’t old, but this feels like an elderly film, restrained in its camera movement, muted in its performances; a sad, elegiac but brilliantly expressed reflection of the themes of a career.