Monday, March 23, 2015

L'Immortelle (1963)

Alain Robbe-Grillet found himself in an interesting position in 1963. Always quick with some self-deprecating humor, the brilliant novelist and filmmaker constantly quipped that during the 50’s and 60’s when the “nouvelle roman” or new novel movement which Robbe-Grillet was a leader, if not the inventor of, was en vogue, Robbe-Grillet’s name was one to drop, even if as he put it, nobody read him. Robbe-Grillet’s name became even famous when his screenplay for Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marinbad (1961) was nominated for an Oscar, even though he wasn’t a best seller and French literary critics failed to comprehend his radical writing style. Robbe-Grillet had always expressed interest in making films and during a 1989 lecture at San Francisco University he joked that he was probably asked to direct films due to the popular critical consensus that his novels were films that just haven’t been made yet, citing his 1957 novel Jealousy in which over the course of 200 pages a house is described while still not really giving a clear example of what the house actually looks like so it was only right to give Robbe-Grillet a camera and literally show the house! Robbe-Grillet’s astonishing first film, 1963’s L’Immortelle was a perfect cinematic translation of his unconventional nouvelle roman writing style and set in motion what was to become one of the most fascinating, provocative and distinctive filmographies in European cinema.    

Shortly after arriving in Istanbul for work purposes, a professor meets a mysterious woman (Françoise Brion) and is immediately taken with her. The two begin a relationship although she remains enigmatic, never really letting him get to know her much to his frustration. He becomes even more perplexed when she tells him she’s going away for a few days without giving any explanation why and is adamant about not being contacted. Afterwards the man becomes obsessed and sets out on the mystifying and potentially dangerous task of finding out all he can about his elusive companion.

At one point during L’Immortelle (The Immortal One) Françoise Brion’s nameless enchanter muses to her (also nameless) suitor that the Turkey in which the film takes place is the “Turkey of your dreams”. Its a description that couldn’t have been more apt, yet at the same time could also be taken with a grain of salt with nothing in a Robbe-Grillet film being instantly explainable. The Istanbul which Robbe-Grillet presents certainly exists in the real word, the film itself however seems to be suspended between the waking and dream world. It’s a world where every character seems to be in a zombified haze of sorts, where the inhabitants speak in cryptic, oftentimes contradicting terms and events are repeated but perhaps not in the exact way they happened in the first place. Such descriptions might make L’Immortelle sound impenetrable however the opposite is true. Robbe-Grillet’s fragmented presentation is unquestionably bewildering but it is also exotic and enticing. The mood the film projects as a result of Robbe-Grillet’s direction and disjointed narrative is astounding making L’Immortelle a film that’s incredibly difficult to not get lost in. Two factors also contribute immensely to the films already trancelike ambiance. The first being Robbe-Grillet’s postcard-esque display Istanbul which essentially becomes its own character but more importantly, the arresting presence of Françoise Brion, with the spell Brion casts on the star-crossed professor carrying over to the audience as well, so much so that the film never once drags even during the portion of the film when she is absent.

L’Immortelle was awarded the Prix Louis Delluc, a prestigious French film award given out buy a jury comprised of mostly film critics, although ironically when the film was released the overall critical response was generally lukewarm or negative. While the majority of Robbe-Grillet’s films were difficult to find up until early 2014 when L’Immortelle along with Trans-Europ-Express (1967), The Man Who Lies (1968), Eden and After (1970) and Successive Slidings of Pleasure (1974) finally received remastered DVD treatments, L’Immortelle was one of the more if not the most tricky to track down unless a screening was held. Thanks to BFI who released all the aforementioned films in a box set and Kino/Redemption who released the films separately, L’Immortelle is readily available. All the discs contain interviews with Robbe-Grillet and the one conducted for L’Immortelle is one of the most interesting as he goes into great detail as to what it was like directing a film for the first time and goes into some of the mistakes he made as a first time filmmaker. It’s a fascinating conversation for an even more fascinating film and it shouldn’t even need to be said that the disc is essential. L’Immortelle is one of Robbe-Grillet’s finest films and like all debuts from major auteurs its is a special film and one that serves as a sign of things to come. A stunning debut from a true original.

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