The story-within-a-story treatise might feel undercooked but Welles still does a lot within its short runtime, particularly creating the film’s dreamy, intoxicating atmosphere, accompanied by the ethereal music of Erik Satie.
Cast: Orson Welles, Jeanne Moreau, Roger Coggio, Norman Eshley
Plot: In Macao, a wealthy merchant named Charles Clay hires two people to recreate a story of a sailor who is paid to impregnate a man’s wife.
Awards: Nom. for Golden Bear (Berlinale)
Subject Matter: Moderate – Storytelling, Desire
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Arthouse
Viewed: Criterion Blu-ray
The last fiction feature that Orson Welles did, and the first of his to be shot in colour, The Immortal Story was meant as a television movie, hence its hour-long runtime. Welles wanted to continue adapting Karen Blixen’s (also known as Isak Dinesen) short stories to screen but unfortunately only this materialised.
Apart from Shakespeare, Welles was obsessed with Blixen’s writings, two of which were famously made into Out of Africa (1986) and Babette’s Feast (1987) by other filmmakers.
Produced in the later European phase of his career, The Immortal Story is another reminder of how talented Welles continued to be even with limited resources.
An example of deliberately-paced storytelling that relies heavily on atmosphere for a certain rarefied poeticism to come through, the film tells the story of Mr. Clay, a rich old man (played by Welles himself) who recounts a story about a young sailor who is paid by a rich old man to impregnate a woman.
“I don’t like pretense. I don’t like prophecies. I like facts.”
A firm believer in facts and records as opposed to myths and prophecies, this story haunts him psychologically, so he attempts to make it true and real.
The story-within-a-story treatise might feel undercooked, but Welles still does a lot within the timeframe. Most strikingly, the film feels impossibly dreamy, almost like a myth in itself that is suspended in time. The decision to use Erik Satie’s ethereal piano music as the film’s ‘score’ came late in post-production, but it is an inspired one.
With Jeanne Moreau spending almost the entire second half of the film strategically covering her bare body, there is also a sense of soft, gentle eroticism to Welles’ work, featuring what could possibly be the most abstract depiction of an orgasming woman ever in cinema.