Orson Welles’s first color film and final completed fictional feature, The Immortal Story is a moving and wistful adaptation of a tale by Isak Dinesen. Welles stars as a wealthy merchant in nineteenth-century Macao, who becomes obsessed with bringing to life an oft-related anecdote about a rich man who gives a poor sailor a small sum of money to impregnate his wife. Also starring an ethereal Jeanne Moreau, this jewel-like film, dreamily shot by Willy Kurant and suffused with the music of Erik Satie, is a brooding, evocative distillation of Welles’s artistic interests—a story about the nature of storytelling and the fine line between illusion and reality.
Orson Welles had a long fascination with the writings of Danish author Karen Blixen (who went by the pen name Isak Dinesen) as the American auteur planned to film an anthology of four Blixen short stories for French television. One of those became 'The Immortal Story,' which Welles shot in Spain and France in 1968. But because of the political upheaval in Paris during that spring, the film did not air on France 2 TV until September. (It did not receive a wide theatrical release until 1976.) The Criterion Collection has brought this penultimate completed film by Welles to Blu-ray in both its English and French versions.
Welles's adaptation of 'The Immortal Story' is set in nineteenth-century Macao where Charles Clay (played by Welles), a rich merchant, lives a life of loneliness and solitude with his dutiful accountant, Elishama Levinsky (Roger Coggio). Welles spends much of the first act spouting monologues about prophecies (which he doesn't believe in) and establishing atmosphere amidst Clay's living quarters and the Macao township. Clay has Levinsky get in contact with the beautiful Virginie Ducrot (Jeanne Moreau), herself the daughter of a merchant. Clay wants her summoned to his abode for a tryst with an unknown partner. Ducrot's late father was once involved with Clay and she wants no part of his proposition. One night on his horse carriage Clay spots Paul (Norman Eshley), a marooned sailor, on the street and asks him to ride along back to Clay's house. The tattered seaman is still numb from his experience on a ship and reluctantly agrees. Clay treats Paul like a prince and determines that the young lad will become Durcrot's lover.
'The Immortal Story' was Welles's first color film and is a magnificently photographed period drama. The opening long shot of the shipping port and white sheets adorned with Chinese characters evokes the wonderful location shots seen in Yasujiro Ozu's films. Welles and his cinematographer Willy Kurant used a pale yellow gauze to achieve the gold lighting effect that shines through the interiors of Clay's study and dining room. (The filmmakers also employed a stunning red wall as a backdrop in the scene where Clay tries to coax Paul into participating in the romantic fable.) Some of Welles's camera angles are reminiscent of the claustrophic group shots he framed from below in 'Touch of Evil' (1958) and his compositions are always precise and elegant.
The film touches on themes of melancholy, nostalgia, and death that so preoccupied Welles late in his career. Clay is nearing the end and he almost wants to adopt Paul as his son. Clay vicariously wants to relive his youthful yearnings through Paul and becomes an obsessive voyeur as Paul joins the older Durcrot inside the netted bed. Welles masterfully conveys unspoken feelings through the characters' erotic impulses and body language. While one of Welles's least known works, 'The Immortal Story' is now rife for critical rediscovery thanks to Criterion's stunning presentation of a lost classic.
'The Immortal Story' appears in its original cinematic ratio of 1.66:1 on this BD-50. The following text appears in Criterion's booklet: 'This new digital transfer was created in 4K resolution from the 35 mm original camera negative and a 35 mm interpositive. Restoration was undertaken in 2K resolution at Eclair | Groupe Ymagis by Gaumont, with the support of the CNC.' The result is a gorgeous transfer that greatly exceeds all prior video editions. Colors are incredibly well-rendered and detail is excellent. Skin tones look natural and there has been no DNR applied. A few shots show a little jitter and the grain structure may be a little unbalanced in spots but these are small anomalies in an otherwise outstanding restored print.
The film's orginal mono soundtrack was derived from 35 mm sound negatives. Given that some of Welles' other films suffered from lip-synch problems and had muffled sound due to production limitiations, the soundtrack (the English one, particularly) pleasantly had none of these issues. Moreau spoke her lines in both English and French while Welles and Eshley read their lines in English only. (The English version runs 58 minutes while the French version lasts about 50 minutes.) Dialog is usually intelligible but due to the era's sound recording, some lines of dialog are not always clearly audible. Composer Erik Satie's pretty piano pieces, "Gnossienne No. 3" and "Gymnopedie No. 1," sound sparkling. The off-screen sound of insects are especially given coverage on the front left channel. A workman-like track that is dependable and sounds as good as the film was probably heard in the theater.
Audio commentary from 2005 featuring film scholar Adrian Martin: a feature-length track that Criterion licenced through Australian-based Madman Entertainment. Martin is an avid film historian who delivers a number of good observations and insights on Welles. Martin appears to be working from notes but is not scripted so he is rather conversational but filler words do slip in.
'Portrait: Orson Welles,' a 1968 documentary directed by François Reichenbach and Frédéric Rossif (42:53, HD): an up-close and intimate look at Welles in the late sixties with rare footage of the filmmaker at home and on location of at least two of his films. Contains valuable interview snippets. In English and French with English subs where needed.
New interview with actor Norman Eshley (14:18, HD): recorded in May 2016, the British actor recollects how he got the part in 'The Immortal Story' and shares his working experience with Welles.
Interview from 2004 with cinematographer Willy Kurant (15:01): a technical-based interview with Kurant explaining how he experimented with Eastmancolor, his collaboration with Welles, and his film-journalism training before the French New Wave films he worked on.
New interview with Welles scholar François Thomas (25:14, HD): a new interview with someone who is incredibly knowledgeable about Welles and seemingly every production detail pertaining to 'The Immortal Story.' It would have been great to have Thomas on a separate commentary track but he is quite thorough here.
PLUS: An essay by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum: a ten-page leaflet (double-sided) with a piece on the film by Rosenbaum, restoration notes, credits, and still photographs.
'The Immortal Story' is a sumptuosly photographed film that lingers on love and death. Criterion has lovingly restored both the English and French versions and given Welles's film the deluxe treatment it deserves with bountiful extras. Most highly recommended.