The Immortal Story: Divas and Dandies

On Film / Essays — Aug 30, 2016

Where the storyteller is loyal, eternally and unswervingly loyal to the story, there, in the end, silence will speak. Where the story has been betrayed, silence is but emptiness. But we, the faithful, when we have spoken our last word, will hear the voice of silence.

—Isak Dinesen, “The Blank Page”


Virginie had a taste for patterns; one of the things for which she despised the English was that to her mind they had no pattern in their lives. She frowned a little, but let Elishama go on.

“Only,” he went on, “sometimes the lines of a pattern will run the other way of what you expect. As in a looking-glass.”

“As in a looking-glass,” she repeated slowly.

“Yes,” he said. “But for all that it is still a pattern.”

—Isak Dinesen, “The Immortal Story”

Aside from William Shakespeare, no writer excited Orson Welles’s imagination more than Isak Dinesen, the pen name of Karen Blixen—a Danish baroness who wrote mainly in English—especially when it came to the films he wanted to make. Even though she was born thirty years ahead of him, they shared a capacity for standing outside of their own eras. Both were cosmopolitan twentieth-century aristocrats with nostalgic yearnings for the nineteenth century, who loved to critique the same romanticism in which they enveloped themselves. Both were florid, masterful storytellers, with a developed taste for paradox, irony, and a kind of artifice that unabashedly calls attention to itself. Perhaps even more relevant to this discussion, both were also tireless polishers of their own art, whose apparent simplicity and directness conceal a great deal of subtle craft and nuance. This is especially true when it comes to the architectonics of “The Immortal Story.”

Welles once even made a pilgrimage to Denmark to meet Dinesen, but after a sleepless night in Copenhagen, he backed away from the prospect and flew home: “I’d been in love with Isak Dinesen since I’d opened her first book,” he later wrote. “Tania was somebody I didn’t know. What could a casual visitor presume to offer except his stammered thanks? The visitor would be a bore, and the lover was too humble and too proud for that. I had only to keep silent and our affair would last—on the most intimate terms—for as long as I had eyes to read print.” (“Tania” was Dinesen’s nickname to intimates, and one wonders whether Welles might have named Marlene Dietrich’s aging, world-weary prostitute after her in Touch of Evil.)

Although Dinesen’s “The Immortal Story”—included in her final story collection, Anecdotes of Destiny (1958), and her personal favorite in that volume—was the only one of her tales that yielded a completed film from Welles, at least half a dozen others attracted his attention as a screen adapter at one time or another. As early as 1953, he planned to include an adaptation of “The Old Chevalier” (1934) in a sketch film for Alexander Korda called Paris By Night, whose other episodes would all be written by himself; and as late as 1985, on the very night that he died, he was planning to shoot part of another sketch film, Orson Welles Solo, that would have included his recounting of that same story. His original plan for The Immortal Story was to make it part of an anthology of Dinesen stories—either a TV series or a sketch feature—along with “The Heroine” (1942), which he started to shoot with Oja Kodar in Budapest while he was still editing The Immortal Story (and then had to abandon a day later when the promised budget evaporated); “The Deluge at Norderney” (1934); and “A Country Tale” (1957). And finally, the most treasured and personal of all his late projects, also starring Kodar, was The Dreamers, which he worked on between 1978 and 1985 and based on both the 1934 story of that title and its belated 1957 sequel, “Echoes.” (Several excerpts from the half hour or so of Welles’s sumptuous test footage for The Dreamers are visible in a documentary on Criterion’s release of F for Fake.)

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Even for a director expected to do the unexpected, The Immortal Story was for many a disconcerting departure for Welles when it premiered theatrically in 1968, in terms of both its seemingly unadorned simplicity and the fact that it was his first released film in color, financed by French television. Although Welles shifted the story’s locale from Canton—as Guangzhou, China, was then known—to Macao and compressed or relocated a few of its narrative details, it generally adheres to the original with rigorous fidelity, including in its eerie and singsong repetitions of certain spoken phrases and the same embedded story about a sailor, as well as its meditative, almost ceremonial pacing, which suggests at times a hypnotic trance. (There are only a few rapid cuts—such as when a fancy meal is served, and again when several candles are blown out—reminding one that this is the same Welles who had made Chimes at Midnight just before, and who would go on to start The Other Side of the Wind and make F for Fake afterward.)

A wealthy, coldhearted, seventy-year-old merchant named Mr. Clay (Welles) contrives to re-create a legendary and fanciful story he once heard from a sailor, enlisting his accountant, Elishama Levinsky (Roger Coggio), to set the machinery in motion by hiring a local courtesan, Virginie (Jeanne Moreau), to play a part. She proves to be the daughter of a merchant Clay drove to suicide years earlier and whose former house he now occupies; the sailor for the story—a Danish teenager named Paul (Norman Eshley)—is chosen at random and summoned on the street by Levinsky and Clay. The various ways in which Clay’s scheme both succeeds and fails over the course of that night constitute the remainder of the tale.

Both the story itself and the tale-within-the-tale are recounted with the sort of elemental purity we associate with myths and fairy tales, and because all four of the characters are solipsistic loners in different ways and mirrors figure often in the settings, repetitions, echoes, and other rhyme effects involving both words and images recur throughout. This is quintessentially a tale about the lures and perils of storytelling itself—that is, the lures and perils of its processes—and about the power plays among its various participants (tellers, listeners, facilitators, and characters), which helps to account for its personal resonance for both Welles and Dinesen. The fact that Dinesen literally dictated this story, like many of her others, to her longtime secretary (and Danish translator, and eventual literary executor) Clara Svendsen must have enhanced her own sense of the interactivity in the yarn-spinning, reflected in Welles’s offscreen narration in the opening stretches of the film’s English version—and even in his willingness, as in the opening of The Magnificent Ambersons, to let gossiping neighbors take up part of the narrating slack, just as Levinsky later completes the telling of the familiar tale that is started by Mr. Clay.

Given the film’s apparent sparseness, it’s surprising to learn from Jean-Pierre Berthomé and François Thomas’s Orson Welles at Work that it was shot in both France and Spain, using at least three separate Spanish medieval villages to stand in for Macao. For his cinematographer, after four unsatisfactory days with the old-school studio technician Walter Wottitz, Welles turned to a relative novice, Willy Kurant, who had recently shot features with Agnès Varda and Jean-Luc Godard, using lighter equipment and a handheld camera, and thus brought a certain New Wave twist to the film’s overall classicism. (Kurant would later shoot The Deep for Welles.) And even though the shooting lasted only about six weeks, the editing—done at Jean-Pierre Melville’s Paris studio—stretched over the better part of a year. This yielded both an English-language version for eventual theatrical release and a shorter French-language version (with Philippe Noiret dubbing Mr. Clay) for French television, and, as Berthomé and Thomas point out, “although only about twelve minutes in the two versions use different takes, they vary in many other ways, like two competing cuts between which it is impossible to choose.” Clearly, making the film for TV played a role in Welles’s adopting a more minimalist visual and aural palette than was customary for him, as had also happened with his 1958 pilot for American TV, The Fountain of Youth. In keeping with this simplicity, and with Dinesen’s notion of a blank page as a silence that speaks, a form of Zen-like wisdom, it seems entirely appropriate that The Immortal Story should end with both the unheard song of a seashell and a complete whiting out of the image.

Coincidentally, it was thanks to French television—specifically, a program about Erik Satie that Welles saw roughly halfway through his editing—that the filmmaker decided to use several of the composer’s sadly reflective solo piano pieces for the film’s score, an inspired choice that, as the New Yorker’s Alex Ross has pointed out, “soon became clichéd” because of its frequent use by other filmmakers but “was quite new in 1968.”

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According to Dinesen biographer Judith Thurman, this story had a particular personal meaning for its author, having been written after the traumatic dissolution of her intense (albeit chaste) relationship with the Danish poet Thorkild Bjørnvig, for whom she’d served for seven years as muse, literary coach/adviser, and soul mate. Thurman notes, “It was one of the three Dinesen tales concerned with the cosmic meddler, one who, innocent or deluded about his omnipotence, tries to usurp the role of the gods in another person’s life, to introduce his own plans for its development and outcome, to graft his own desire onto its fate-in-progress.” The first of these tales—which for Thurman “anticipated with an uncanny coincidence of detail” Dinesen’s friendship with Bjørnvig—was “The Poet,” written in the early 1930s. And the third was “Echoes,” her sequel to “The Dreamers,” which for Thurman “was the epitaph of that friendship.” Hence “The Immortal Story,” the centerpiece of this trio, can be read as her complex reflections about her own “cosmic meddling” in the life and destiny of Bjørnvig.

Given Welles’s appropriation of both “The Immortal Story” and “Echoes” (not to mention “The Dreamers”) into his own oeuvre, it is difficult not to find personal investments of his in this highly allegorical material. “The Dreamers” recounts the story of a famous opera singer named Pellegrina who, after losing her singing voice, resolves to disappear from her life and lead many other, different lives; “Echoes” charts one of those lives, when she tries to mentor a boy in a remote country village who has a beautiful voice and reminds her of her former self, and he winds up denouncing her as a witch.

The fact that Welles shot many of the interiors of The Immortal Story in his own villa near Madrid, including much of Clay’s house, and all of the material for The Dreamers in his own house and backyard in Hollywood, seems to support his personal relation to these stories, even though practical concerns also must have played a part in these decisions. Welles’s own long-term relationship with Oja Kodar—who served as his muse but whom he also mentored—undoubtedly also played a part, even when it came to The Immortal Story. When I met her in 1986, a few months after Welles’s death, she told me that the first work she ever did on one of his films was dubbing Virginie’s “lovemaking sighs” during her night with Paul. (In fact, it seems she was alluding to the character’s gasp at the moment of orgasm, when she relives the loss of her virginity with an English captain by experiencing an earthquake—an abrupt punctuation to a soundtrack otherwise dominated here by the delicate and intricate orchestration of the chirping of crickets.) And clearly part of what “The Dreamers” meant for Welles related to his identification with Pellegrina (and, by extension, with Kodar) as well as her own best friend and facilitator, a wealthy Dutchman named Marcus Cocoza (whom he played himself), like the character Levinsky, a Jew; and in “Echoes,” one suspects, he identified in different ways with both Pellegrina and her young pupil.

So it isn’t really a stretch to say that in The Immortal Story, Welles identifies with all the major characters—Clay, Elishama, Paul, and Virginie (the last two of whom constitute a clear literary allusion to Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s celebrated 1788 novel Paul et Virginie, one of the key romances read by Flaubert’s Emma Bovary roughly half a century later). Indeed, the fact that both he and Dinesen identify with all four, in equal measure, is central to the primal power of their storytelling.

This cross-identification, then, is something else these two larger-than-life artists shared, a fluidity regarding gender when it came to projecting themselves into others. Dinesen was often called a diva, and Welles was sometimes regarded as a dandy, but clearly it doesn’t do justice to either of their respective temperaments or self-images to limit them to such stereotypes. It would be far more accurate to say that both of them were divas and dandies, at the same time and at every moment.