Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Immortal Story (Orson Welles, 1968)


Orson Welles' most neglected masterpiece is a fable, a fairy tale, a dialectic and a dream. In 1860s Macao, an heir-less wealthy merchant approaching a solitary death resolves to reconstruct a legend narrated by sailors around the world in order to 'legitimise' it.

It's difficult to determine how much of the film's depth and resonance comes directly from Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen's novella of the same name, but it's also irrelevant. Employing a stark colour palette, elegantly sparse locations and Erik Satie's lovely, subtle piano, Welles gives it a somnambulistic pull.

It's quieter than his other films. Like the late-career work of all great artists, it's deliberate and unshowy. Its formalism doesn't invite you all that actively to seek out the feeling and poignancy underneath. This may very well have had some impact on its inadequate critical standing as has, no doubt, its being a barely-hour-long drama made for French television. And it doesn't help that hefty slabs of the dialogue are barely intelligible. But if you look past the technical limitations - which, like every diligent Welles disciple, you should train yourself to do - it's an eloquent, enthralling piece of work.

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