Many years ago, in 1969, when I was working as a writer for Life magazine under editor Thomas Thompson, one of the highlights of my working week came on Monday, when the screening schedule of newly released films would be distributed throughout the office, and we’d all post the list on our respective bulletin boards. In that resolutely pre-digital era, every new release was screened in its original 35mm format at one of the many excellent facilities that existed in Manhattan at the time, and being absolutely omnivorous about film, I would make it a point to attend every single screening, every single day, of absolutely every film that was being released.
And thus it was one day that I found myself in a screening room at Preview Theater, located at 1600 Broadway, sitting in a screening room watching Alain Robbe-Grillet’s debut feature, L’Immortelle. The film absolutely stunned me with its originality and brilliance in every aspect, from its enigmatic screenplay, to the dreamy mise-en-scène. But unlike the much better known Last Year at Marienbad, which Robbe-Grillet scripted but did not direct — Alain Resnais did the honors on that one — for some reason, L’Immortelle never caught on in the states, even on the art house circuit.
L’Immortelle was shot in 1962, and released in France on March 27, 1963, but despite the enormous success of Marienbad, L’Immortelle was deemed too difficult for American audiences, and resolutely uncommercial – which it is – and with a rough negative cost of $100,000, the producer and distributor of the film deemed a United States release more trouble than it was worth. And so it was not until six years later that L’Immortelle made the rounds of screening rooms in Manhattan; after that, I think it might have played at a few art houses for a week or so, but then it vanished from sight completely.
L’Immortelle itself has a curious genesis; it was made with blocked funds in Turkey that couldn’t be taken out of the country, and so shooting in Istanbul was a given, though Robbe-Grillet had ties to the city and knew it well. The producers even went so far as to say that they didn’t even really care if the film made money, just so long as they could get something out of Turkey. Thus, Robbe-Grillet and his wife, Catherine, who appears in the film as the enigmatic Catherine Sarayan, scouted locations and had the entire project ready to go, when a revolution interrupted their plans, and shooting had to be put off for two years before a new regime was installed, and some semblance of order restored. Then the film was shot quickly and efficiently, in richly saturated black and white.
The film’s narrative is so slight as to be nonexistent; the official press synopsis describes the film as “an erotic, dream-like fantasy in which a despondent man meets a beautiful, secretive woman who may, or may not, be involved in using kidnapped women as prostitutes.” This is as good a synopsis as any might be, because the real psychic and visual terrain of the film is memory, repetition, the impossibility of knowing another, the unreliability of the senses, and a circularity of narrative that keeps bringing the viewer back to one location after another with the stubborn insistence of a spectral tour guide who seemingly insists that we visit a room, a mosque, a nightclub, an antique store, an apartment and numerous other locations just one more time, until they are indelibly imprinted on our memory.
The leading characters, Françoise Brion and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, known only as L and N respectively, are not so much characters as situations; people frozen in time and memory who walk through the film with an air of complete detachment from any sort of reality, as if they are the principals in their own fantasy of Istanbul, and the few supporting characters who surround them behave in exactly the same fashion. Scenes are routinely repeated two, three times or more, sometimes exactly the same, down to the slightest detail, and other times with minor variations, seemingly in slow motion, as if actors are sleepwalking through the world they inhabit. Often, characters appear within a scene without explanation, as if they had always been there, and perhaps always will be there; timeless, unchanging, fixed and motionless.
There is a timelessness about the film, and for good reason; as Robbe-Grillet has acknowledged on numerous occasions, Françoise Brion’s character is already dead when the film begins, although she assumes a phantom corporeality for the purposes of the film, and Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, for all intents and purposes, is in love with someone who no longer exists, if she ever existed – in fact, we can’t be sure if any of the narrative ever occurred, or if everything we’re seeing is a fever dream, something conjured up out of loneliness, isolation, or the sheer existential longing of one man’s need to be loved.
For myself, having seen the film once, I was so stunned by the sensuality and intensity of the film that I went back to all the subsequent press screenings, dragging my colleagues with me. They didn’t necessarily share my enthusiasm for the film, but admitted that it was certainly one of a kind. But after that, the film didn’t even get a 16mm non-theatrical release for university and museum screenings; thus L’Immortelle, in an oddly fitting way, was consigned to oblivion.
For years, the only way to see the film was in the original 35mm format, and I was able to secure the loan of a 35mm print of the film for my class at The University of Nebraska, Lincoln in 2009, through the courtesy of the French Cultural Ministry, and screened it for my students, who were amazed by the beauty and sensuousness of the film. Even those students who were completely out of the loop on 1960s “art house” cinema were literally astounded by L’Immortelle. As one viewer said, “it’s a shame that our generation doesn’t have any filmmakers like that working today.” Everyone in the class was simply floored by the film; it’s that good.
Surprisingly, Robbe-Grillet himself continually expressed his dislike of L’Immortelle from the moment of its release, complaining that the crew was clumsy and unresponsive – more on this below – and that the film didn’t turn out as he intended; perhaps this is one of the reasons it’s taken so long for L’Immortelle to come out, while other of his films have long been available on DVD. With his own dissatisfaction with L’Immortelle readily apparent, and the lack of commercial clout in the increasingly niche market of DVDs, I despaired of ever seeing the film again.
Then, slowly, the logjam began to break. Robbe-Grillet died in 2008, and his widow, Catherine, began the process of putting his work before the public. On November 6, 2013, a French box set of nine digitally remastered Robbe-Grillet films was released by Sony Home Entertainment, entitled Alain Robbe-Grillet: Récits cinématographiques, with videotaped introductions for each film by Catherine Robbe-Grillet, as well as a lengthy video interview, conducted shortly before Robbe-Grillet’s death, by journalist Frédéric Taddeï. A lavishly illustrated 132-page book also accompanied the box set. However, this French version has no English subtitles, and for a moment, I thought I would never see a US/UK release.
So I’m delighted to note that L’Immortelle is finally getting the DVD and Blu-ray release with English subtitles it so richly deserves — both from Redemption Films (a Kino sub-company) in the United States, with a street date of April 1, 2014; and from the British Film Institute, with a street date of June 23, 2014 — 51 years after the film was first released. The Frédéric Taddeï interview is included on both the British and US DVDs and Blu-rays, but sadly, Catherine Robbe-Grillet’s opening remarks have been cut. The 132-page book is also missing in action, which is sad. However, both the US and UK editions use the same digitally restored masters, and the results are stunning. Indeed, this is one of the cleanest transfers I have ever seen of any film; it just pops off the screen.
In the case of the British box set, rather prosaically (and, as can readily be seen, inaccurately) entitled Alain Robbe-Grillet: Six Films 1964-1974, one has to buy six Robbe-Grillet films as a group, rather than single titles; the films are L’Immortelle (1963), Trans-Europ-Express (1967), The Man Who Lies (1968), Eden and After (1970), N. Rolls the Dice (1971) and Successive Slidings Into Pleasure (1974). American viewers can choose to purchase each film individually, which is a blessing, since only Trans-Europe Express comes close to the enigmatic brilliance of L’Immortelle.
Though L’Immortelle won the prestigious Prix Louis Delluc at the Berlin Film Festival, it was greeted with either indifference or hostility by contemporary critics, and failed at the box office, though to my mind it’s a much more adventurous film than Marienbad or even Hiroshima Mon Amour – as much as I love the latter film. As noted above, matters were not helped by the fact that Robbe-Grillet himself expressed unhappiness with the film from the moment of its release; used to working on his own as a writer, Robbe-Grillet really wasn’t ready to collaborate with actors, or with a film crew. To his way of thinking (as he noted in the Frédéric Taddeï interview), Robbe-Grillet felt that the film was a relative failure because he couldn’t control every aspect of the film’s production.
Yet even here, he isn’t consistent; in the Taddeï interview, Robbe-Grillet complains that on one occasion, some uninvited pigeons flew into a shot, ruining the take in his mind, and calling for a retake; on the other hand, during a shot designed to show the leading man in a deserted square, when a funeral procession began to cross the area unannounced, Robbe-Grillet excitedly gave the order to roll film, and was furious when the cameraman cut off the shot at midpoint because he wasn’t satisfied with the lighting.
Robbe-Grillet also, by his own admission, had no idea how to direct actors, and so he used them more or less as models, in the manner of Robert Bresson, but again, this works perfectly, particularly since he admitted in the interview that the female protagonist of the film “is already dead” when the film starts, and thus the film is an entirely imaginary construct from beginning to end. The city of Istanbul itself is rendered as if in a vision, as Robbe-Grillet readily admitted in the interview that accompanies this disc; a picture postcard exoticist’s dream.
At still other points in his memories of the shoot, Robbe-Grillet complains that the crew, accustomed to making commercial movies, continually blocked him on more audacious and revolutionary editorial structures and camerawork. At one point, the script clerk complained that if Robbe-Grillet shot a sequence of the leading character, N, played by Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, as he planned, Doniol-Valcroze would seem to be crossing a room to meet himself, seated, on the other side. “Fantastic!” Robbe-Grillet replied, and so the crew shot the sequence grudgingly, nevertheless convinced that this was madness. This resistance from both Robbe-Grillet, and from the crew, continued throughout the shoot.
Yet for me, none of Robbe-Grillet’s other films comes close to the beauty and mystery of L’Immortelle – his first and best work. I strongly feel that with his later work, Robbe-Grillet took a decisively wrong turn into deeply misogynistic territory – others may certainly disagree – and that L’Immortelle, created under the severely compromised circumstances as outlined above, nevertheless remains his one wholly successful film.
Indeed, the American versions of Robbe-Grillet’s films on the Redemption label play up the S&M angle in his later works, comparing his films to the soft-core porn novel Fifty Shades of Grey – something that might accurately be said about La Belle captive (1983), one of his later, lesser projects, though this aspect really isn’t present, or at least not foregrounded, in L’Immortelle, which is a meditation on memory, loss, death, and as Cocteau put it, “the mortal tedium of immortality.”
But this misdirection doesn’t bother me too much; imagine how many people will buy the DVD, and then be shocked by what they get instead! Indeed, L’Immortelle is so remarkable that I can’t help thinking that if this film had received proper worldwide distribution when it first came out, the whole of French New Wave film history would have been altered. Now you can see for yourself.
Wheeler Winston Dixon writes regularly for Film International.