The Ontology of the Story in 'The Immortal Story'

A story is told, not lived. It's experienced as a sort of opiate, a momentary deferral of lived experience.

The Immortal Story

Director: Orson Welles
Cast: Orson Welles, Jeanne Moreau, Roger Coggio, Norman Eshley
Distributor: Criterion Collection
Year: 1968
US Release date: 2016-08-30

Someone requests of you: “Tell me a story.” What is it that they're asking, precisely? Of course, they're asking to be entertained, to have a moment pass in distraction from the necessities and tribulations of the day. But entertainment comes in many forms. What does a story entail in its essence?

The request demands more than a simple retailing of fact. We are all familiar with historians, be they academic or family historians or just a friend telling you what occurred at work that day, who are adept at relaying a narrative of what happened in the past without ever turning that sequence of facts into something we would call a story. That is, there are plenty of historians who are not storytellers.

A story provides a point of view that seems to transcend points of view altogether. It’s not about one person’s impressions (even if it is told in the manner of a first person account). The story intimates a worldly wise vision (often imbued with gentle irony) that approximates a sort of moral omniscience -- a manner of knowing that surpasses one’s limited view of the world.

A true storyteller is at once rare and ubiquitous. Perhaps we all have our moments as storytellers but those moments are marked, special. Habitually successful storytellers are revered, quasi-shamanic figures.

A story, even if it is based on fact, is essentially fictional. Facts become transmuted through the telling, lifting the story beyond the realm of the real into the unreal, the fictive, the symbolic. Stories, in their ontological core, are not about how we live but rather about how we might live if we were able to manifest in reality the transformative power of our imaginations.

The “if” in that last sentence is crucial. The story operates on the assumption that what it tells cannot be enacted in fact (again, this is true even of stories that are based in fact—at least if they are worthy of the honorific “story” as opposed to “report” or “account”). When someone tells us as story and we respond, “Ah, I wish I had been there”, we don't simply mean we wish we had been where the facts occurred, we mean we wish we could inhabit the uninhabitable story as such. We wish our lives could be transformed by that fictive impulse that mysteriously lies at the core of the true story.

This is the central concern of Orson Welles’s film The Immortal Story, his first film in color (he once insisted that truly memorable cinematic performances only occurred in black and white), a new edition of which has just been released by Criterion Collection. This is Welles’s only successful realization of a film based on a work by one of his favorite authors (perhaps second only to Shakespeare in his esteem): the Danish baroness, Karen Blixen, who wrote under the pen name Isak Dinesen, arguably most famous for her non-fiction account Out of Africa. Welles had many other Dinesen film projects in mind, but none were brought to fruition.

The film was commissioned by French television and Criterion Collection presents both of the versions Welles completed: one for television broadcast, in French (with a French actor dubbing Welles’s part -- sacrilege!) that runs 48 minutes, and one for theatrical release, in English, running 60 minutes. The slight difference in running time is somewhat misleading: each film uses different takes, giving rise to two distinct versions, not simply a “full” and “abridged” form of the same film.

The plot to The Immortal Story is narratively simple but philosophically complex. A wealthy and aged English merchant, Mr. Clay (Welles), lives an isolated and gloomy existence in Macao, where he lords his wealth over the inhabitants of the region. Unable to sleep, he has his accountant Elishama Levinsky (Roger Coggio) read the account books to him late into the night. Clay asks Levinsky to read him a story and the latter reads from the book of Isaiah. Clay labels this a prophecy and says he despises prophecies.

He claims he wanted a story, something that actually happened, not something the prophet claims will come to pass but in all likelihood never will. Clay then starts to tell Levinsky a story he once heard about a sailor encountering an elderly rich man who plied the sailor with fine food and wine and then offered him five guineas for an evening’s work. Levinsky interrupts the tale, completing it for Clay: the sailor is paid to impregnate the elderly man’s young wife. Levinsky asserts that all sailors tell that bawdy tale and it has never actually occurred to anyone. He suggest that its impossibility as reality is precisely why it's told as a story.

Clay determines to make the story real, to contrive it so that it really happened. He sends Levinsky to procure him a woman to play the part of the young wife and then he will pick out a suitable sailor. Levinsky secures the reluctant assistance of Virginie (Jeanne Moreau), the mistress of another clerk, who happens to be the daughter of a man Clay had ruined financially, leading to the man’s suicide. Levinsky is convinced that his master will not survive the realization of his plan and Virginie agrees to act her part as a means of revenge against the man she sees as her father’s murderer.

Clay then solicits a young sailor named Paul (Norman Eshley). Paul resists initially. Indeed, he is familiar with the story, as are all sailors, so he knows precisely what Clay is suggesting almost immediately. This is the first obvious flaw in Clay’s plan. The story Clay attempts to enact perforce differs from the story as told insofar as the protagonist (the young sailor) knows of it as a story that has been told.

The initial story is a fiction that presents itself as an iteration of reality. What Clay and Paul are experiencing is a real situation that attempts to manifest the fiction, to force it into reality. The original story relies upon the incredulity of the sailor. “What fortune!” we imagine him saying, “I receive a healthy sum of money to satisfy my sexual desire.” Paul is not incredulous in the same way. He knows how the story goes and realizes he is designated to play the role of the hero.

Paul avers that his reluctance has nothing to do with a lack of desire. After all, he has spent the past several years stranded on an island and had only recently been rescued. He longs for a female touch. His resistance derives from his unwillingness to be forced into a fictive role. When Paul suggests Clay find another sailor, Clay insists it must be Paul. He admits that he likes to think about the young man stranded on his island. This is a bizarre but revealing statement.

Notice that Clay does not ask for more detail about the island or Paul’s experiences. He doesn’t want truth about that situation. Rather, he enjoys thinking about it. He enjoys the fantasy of it and his assumption that the desire that must be pent up in the young man will only heighten the delirious outflowing of lust during his sexual congress with Virginie.

Clay seems not to be fully aware of the implications of the contradiction between the tale as such and his attempt to bring it into the real. He must, however, realize it on some level. It impacts the way he plays his role, as well. He doesn’t simply tell Paul that he wants the young man to impregnate his wife; he changes the motivation behind the elderly man’s request. Clay asserts that he wants to be responsible for a child coming into existence. He follows this up in a rather gauche manner by showing up at the window of the bedchamber once Paul has begun to engage sexually with Virginie. “You move at my bidding,” he boasts, only to be cut off from his view when Virginie closes the blinds.

The most troubling aspect of the film is Levinsky’s prophecy (and remember Clay’s disdain for prophecy) that the realization of the story will be fatal. Levinsky claims that the danger here lies in the nature of desire: one dies from attaining one’s desire or failing to do so. But I think there's more to it than that. The threat here has to do with the ontology of the story.

A story is told, not lived. It's experienced as a sort of opiate, a momentary deferral of lived experience. We hear the story as an “other than”. It's other than the life we lead. It inhabits a space that we cannot. Like any escape from reality, like any drug, the story has to be handled with proper care if it's not to endanger us. Clay attempts to bridge the gap between the real and the fictive, the quotidian and the ideal, and he dies in the effort.

* * *

The Criterion Collection has just issued Welles’s The Immortal Story on Blu-Ray and DVD. It includes both the French and the English versions of the film along with a documentary on Welles, Portrait: Orson Welles by François Reichenbach and Frédéric Rossif; an interview with Norman Eshley, who plays Paul in the film; an interview with cinematographer Willy Kurant; an interview with Welles scholar François Thomas; and a booklet essay by film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum.


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