‘L’Immortelle’ (1963)

[18 April 2014]

By Michael Barrett

L’Immortelle begins as it means to continue: a series of fragmentary, disorienting scenes of a man gazing helplessly upon a fetishized, smiling, mysterious woman in a variety of locations around Istanbul. The opening montage of shots create an imaginary time and space through editing of glances and gestures across obviously disparate moments. The result is dreamlike and obsessive in very sharp, arid black and white. If these first moments don’t warn you away, you are helplessly under the movie’s spell. The rest of the film expands these scenes without explaining them: a man has a series of frustrating encounters, and evidently a sexual affair, with an elusive woman who might possibly be a spirit. At the very least, she’s a Symbol.

This is the first feature to be both written and directed by novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet. He made this around the same time as he scripted Last Year at Marienbad, and the similarities are unavoidable and pleasurable. As the camera glides about, the characters sometimes stand like statues, and we can’t be sure if a given scene is happening “now” or merely in the man’s memory as he ruefully rifles the past for clues. Often characters look directly into the camera, and an especially startling example comes at the very beginning, when the woman’s sudden blink alarms the viewer with the thought that she’s alive, not a mere photograph, and that she’s been watching us as intently as we’ve looked at her.

At its most superficial level, this is about Woman the Eternal Enigma (as far as men are concerned). Even this cliché is well handled, nor should the erotic tease be discounted. More substantially, the woman is a symbol or allegory of “the exotic Orient” itself, for she constantly declares that none of this is happening and the postcard shots of Istanbul around them exist only in the imagination of this French visitor. More excitingly, the film explores Robbe-Grillet’s themes of memory and illusion in a way that now seems crisp and beautiful, for we’re used to narrative teases in deserted streets, even though many critics were bored at the time; even so, they gave it their prestigous Louis Delluc Prize, a fact over which Robbe-Grillet remained astounded.

The actors are the married couple of actress Francoise Brion and director Jacques Doniol-Volcroze, who’d already made several films together. Here the husband appears, as Robbe-Grillet says in an amusing and informative interview, like a block of wood. The late filmmaker speaks candidly and engagingly of the film’s flaws and how it was a learning experience for him. This is the first installment of Redemption and Kino’s admirable project to make available to Region 1 audiences the output of Robbe-Grillet, which has previously been on video only in Region 2.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/180218-limmortelle/