“-Do you know the poems of Sultan Selim?
‘They are full of flowers and perfumes,
greenery, cool fountains, and slim jets of water.’
-Which Sultan Selim?
-I don’t know. Whichever. They were all named Selim and they all wrote the same poems with the same cliched imagery that recurs like fetishes. Or passwords you utter to pass through the garden gate and enter the palace of your sleepless nights.”- L’Immortelle
DIRECTED BY: Alain Robbe-Grillet
FEATURING: Françoise Brion, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, Catherine Robbe-Grillet
PLOT: A professor vacationing in Istanbul comes across a mysterious, vivacious woman who weaves in and out of his life during a fateful summer. The impenetrability of the woman ignites an obsession in the professor, one that leads him into the shadowy, knotted heart of the city and the underbelly of his own desire.
- Already a staple in French New Wave as a successful screenwriter (Last Year in Marienbad), Alain Robbe-Grillet was trying to break into motion pictures as a director, but was unable to find the funding. A Belgian producer agreed to fund his first feature on the condition that he use funds legally tied up in Turkey (due to an inability to convert the Turkish pound, which had left a wool-trading friend of the producer’s unable to use his profit anywhere else in the world). Robbe-Grillet shot the film there and used the location as a central narrative device, in the vein of a cinematic arabesque.
- Robbe-Grillet’s own wife Catherine plays the oft-mentioned Catherine Sarayon (or Carayon). Robbe-Grillet met her in Turkey, which is similar to the way the protagonist meets the woman he falls for in L’Immortelle. Catherine wrote several novels of sadomasochistic erotica, sometimes under the pseudonym “Jean de Berg.”
- During filming, Turkey erupted into a violent revolution in which the heads of government were all hanged. Robbe-Grillet, whose production company had made deals with the ousted government, had to get out hastily and wait in France for the volatile situation to die down before returning to complete the film.
- Although it was reasonably well-regarded at the time of its release, screening at the Berlin Film Festival, L’Immortelle since fell between the cracks and was not released on home video in any form until 2014.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: This film is rife with iconic, spellbinding imagery, but chief among them is the mystical and sacred moment in the mosque as the professor, already deeply entranced by the woman of his waking dreams, searches for her in the darkness. He shambles around a corner with desperation in his gait (slowly, though, as if no wait was long enough), and spies the woman kneeling on the ground kneeling in prayer, perfect and impregnable. She rises to meet him like a goddess of torturous pleasure; her grace and beauty combined with his love-struck agony in the shadows is a moment of understated, haunting beauty.
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: L’Immortelle operates less like a film and more like a state of mind, using baffling, at times purposely repetitive shots to create something that transcends the world of the nominal. It is a movie based in philosophy, emotion, and spirituality, not plot and structure. It does not want to entertain or make sense, it wants to touch below the surface, and it does through the tried-and-true tactic of not explaining a single thing, compounding each image placed on screen into an enigma that never diminishes as time rolls on.
Original French language trailer for L’Immortelle
COMMENTS: The narrative tradition is a lie. From our earliest fables to the towering epics of our own time, we tell stories in the way that is the most pleasing to our thought process, with a beginning, middle, and ending, usually with patterns, and almost always with an implied purpose to illuminate or express meaning. But this is contradictory to the human experience; in our reality, significance is not implied. In L’Immortelle, French New Wave titan Alain Robbe-Grillet’s directorial debut, we are taken to a place that is familiar yet alien, a world we inhabit in every day without realizing; the realm of the unexplained life.
We find ourselves incidental tourists in Istanbul, following a tourist, a professor from who-knows-where, professing who-knows-what. He is there for the summer, or maybe he was always there, and just forgot. He seems the hapless type. During this endless summer, he is ensnared by a beautiful enigma of a woman who teases him with information about herself and the town that may not even be accurate, but leaves him wondering. Through a series of fragmented conversations, meetings, and esoteric sexual encounters with her, his perception of the world around him begins to waver. Then, inexplicably, she disappears like a phantom into the balmy Turkish air. He is both haunted by her and frantic to find her. He retraces his steps over and over to find clues as to her whereabouts, or perhaps to prove to himself that she was real. The more he digs, the less he understands, and eventually the knowledge he gains only serves as the curvature to the elliptical shape his life becomes, but his thoughts lie only with her, or, more likely, the mystery of her.
Whenever L’Immortelle is discussed, discussion tends to focus on the themes of S&M and bondage that float in and out of the narrative. Critics have lauded it, even on the DVD cover art, as a sort of proto-“50-Shades-of-Grey.” And while having any subversive sexual material at all in the repressive year-in-film of 1963 is intriguing in and of itself, to call this a fetish movie is a stretch and a disservice to both L’Immortelle and fetishists-at-large. There is about as much bondage on display here as there was unsheathed manhood in Fight Club. There is no denying the elements at play here; our mystery woman is indeed both drawn to and repelled by physical pain in scenes throughout, she wears a metallic armband like a girl in a sheik’s harem, and the threat of a beating is referenced by the professor during one scene, which seems to excite the woman greatly. But ultimately this is a grasp at thin straws, and a stab in the wrong direction besides, as there are much more interesting things at work in L’Immortelle than provocative sensuality.
This is the sort of film that polarizes movie-goers. It’s a mood-setting, glacially-paced, confusing little subtitled foreign flick and in black-and-white with no action and minimal overt titillation. And if there was nothing more to it than that, it would probably be more at home in the art-house than in the pantheon of the cinema fantastique. But this isn’t Jules et Jim or Breathless; there is something piercing, almost sinister in the very bones of L’Immortelle that sets it apart from other works of the era. Part of that fundamental difference can be attributed to the film’s refusal to curb to any outside influence of reality. Everything commonly accepted to be true in real life is cast in suspicion here; the woman shows our professor all the tourist-trap wonders of Istanbul, then tells him that they’re all fakes, she takes him to a cemetery and tells him that nobody is really buried there, she writes down her address, then immediately she says it’s not even her real address (it is later revealed that the piece of paper had nothing written on it to begin with, to further muddy the waters). Aspersions are cast on the most fundamental story elements, and by the end, the audience is left shell-shocked and nearly as confused as our protagonist.
While it’s easy to compare the eerie, repetitive pace of L’Immortelle to dream-logic, Robbe-Grillet said he wanted the film to mirror a novel, where fluid motion is unnecessary through the already-sweeping effect of the written word on human comprehension patterns. Scenes like the initial party, where at first they are standing, then after a slow pan without a single cut we find them again, presumably later, sitting down, set the tone for a movie that refuses to conform to being just a movie. The frame is passed down from viewpoint to viewpoint, sometimes not even from main characters, never as a disinterested third-party, but rather a curious reader examining the majestic landscape of the Middle East. This style could be seen as the work of an amateur, which it is, but there is a grand vision here exploring big ideas in an intimate way through unique camerawork that cannot be easily dismissed by mere labels.
Although L’Immortelle is a film that stymies the very concept of meaning, that is not to say that it is without expression. Indeed, Robbe-Grillet, through a traditionally backwards process of draining the actors of emotion and filling the locations with it instead, it is, in a way, a hyper-expressive piece. Francoise Brion sizzles here as a woman on the verge of disappearing, filled with a secret, grim knowledge, and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze is pitch-perfect as our hopelessly lost guide to this phantom zone, but all the heavy lifting is done by the city of Istanbul. “Twin Peaks“-ian levels of paranoia and anxiety fumigate the atmosphere around our hapless professor, with every outside force harboring a dim, implicit threat: the sea, the roads, the animals, and even the mass of humanity that fills the narrow streets of Istanbul stand at odds with his comfort and happiness. And ever in the background is an ominous call to prayer, a foghorn calling out to no one, a dog’s frantic bark, heartbeats in this city beating in time to our inward feelings of dread and distrust of the unknown. Like an inverted travelogue, L’Immortelle forces the audience to reevaluate the comfort of sameness versus the inherent unease in facing the strange and alien.
Alain Robbe-Grillet would go on to create some of the most cerebral and provocative films of his generation, but all the themes he would explore in the future have their impetus in L’Immortelle. It is a film that defies everything, says nothing, but leaves you craving more. It is a subversive meditation on the inexplicable nature of our own lives and a satire of traditional storytelling. It is the impenetrable castle wall that breaks the Turkish coastline of our souls. If anything concrete can be gleamed from this film, it is that nothing makes sense in the end, and that the only thing more unsettling than that is the person who tries in vain again and again to put the pieces in order.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…this eerily erotic tale, goosed along by a series of repetitive images and seemingly disassociated sounds—is definitely not for those who want their mysteries solved… Deconstruction and surreality is very much the business at hand here…”- P.S. Colbert, DVD Verdict (DVD)
“…the film retains an otherworldly, dreamlike quality… By using the narrative conventions so characteristic of film noir (the femme fatale/dubious ‘dame who got away’) Robbe-Grillet was able to explore the existentialist questions haunting the human experience, unequivocally tied to time, loss, and the persistence of memory.”- Josef Luciano, Diabolique Magazine (Blu-ray)
IMDB LINK: L’Immortelle (1963)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Kino Lorber’s Redemption Films – The label this DVD was released on has a number of other cult, oddball titles to check out. If you’re interested in heroin-chic vampire waifs stalking the European countryside wearing nothing but a sheer white robe to cover themselves with while primitive Moogs churn out faux-Transylvanian noodlings, this is your one-stop shop.
Interview with Alain Robbe-Grillet – This 1986 interview with director Alain Robbe-Grillet published in “The Paris Review” is a fascinating read. Published during the release of his autobiography, this interview shows more of his personality than the one we see on the L’Immortelle DVD release. He is witty, sharp, and full of the phenomenology of spirit that would come to define his entire career as an artist, and touches on a wide variety of subjects, including more information on his work as a writer.
DVD INFO: The L’Immortelle DVD (buy) is conspicuously bare-bones, presumably either because the Redemption label is more in the soft-core lesbian porno releasing business and they didn’t know how to treat the material here, or because there is little footage left of or about this lost gem. While the transfer is lovely and immaculate both in the aural and visual sense, the lack of extras leaves something to be desired. There is a 30 minute interview with director Alain Robbe-Grillet where he shares a number of informative anecdotes about the making of the L’Immortelle and his filmmaking philosophy. It’s a definite must-watch for anyone hoping to gain some insight into this puzzle box of a movie. The movie is also available on Blu-ray (buy) with the same features.