10 March, 2008

Alain Robbe-Grillet's L'IMMORTELLE (1963)

Francoise Brion (ATTACK OF THE ROBOTS; AL OTRO LADO DEL ESPEJO) is L, the eternal feminine, the mystery woman, the angel of death in Alain Robbe-Grillet's first film as director.

N (Jacques Doniol-Valcroze) lost in the labyrinth of myth, geography, intrigue, memory and reality which is Istanbul. Valcroze, a journalist, co-founder of CAHIERS DU CINEMA in the early 1950s and later a film director, was married to the film's female lead, Francoise Brion, at the time of shooting.

"...it's all false. They're engaged in building Byzantium."

Françoise Brion is L, the Woman, the sometimes narrator, the one who observes the false surfaces of Istanbul. Jacques Doniol-Valcroze is N, the Man who we will mainly remember as a stooped-over, recessive figure in a conservative suit who makes little impression as a individual character. Ms. Brion's face is impossible to forget, while the journalist-director Robbe-Grillet settled on as his male lead (after considering Jean-Louis Trintignant) is a non-actor, a form which will fill a void, or a near-void. It's almost as if he's been projected onto the reality of Istanbul, or the unreality which is Byzantium, which is being archaeologically restored just outside of view.

M, the Stranger (Guido Celano) is the burly man who wears expensive suits, sunglasses and may or may not be the controller/pimp of L. who may or may not be a prostitute, or a candidate for a white slave opportunity. One can't critique the actors because there is no real acting, there are movements, the smile of L., the sudden withdrawl of N. from the jealousy window where which he has been observing the waterfront where M. walks his dogs. The dogs, the ones people tend to tense up around, Dobermans. The film was originally to be titled LES CHIENS. M always seems to have control of the animals which makes it all the more alarming when one of them is suddenly there, right in the middle of the dark road as your car approaches and it's too late to avoid a crash.... but we're getting ahead of ourselves.

Written before, and released after, Alain Resnais 1961 film L'ANNEE' DERNIERE A MARIENBAD, which was written by Robbe-Grillet, who shot L'IMMORTELLE on location in Turkey at the same time as the MARIENBAD shoot. MARIENBAD was nominated for a best original screenplay ACADEMY AWARD and became a famous conversation piece of the 1960's while L'IMMORTELLE, while winning the Louis Delluc prize, went on to relative obscurity.

"Beautifully photographed" according to the Leonard Maltin blurb on the US video box of LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, something one wouldn't think to say about L'IMMORTELLE, which is stylistically conservative in comparison. It couldn't be more different than MARIENBAD while restating that film's thematic obsessions, plot outline, characters, nonlinear structure.

Leaving MARIENDBAD aside, L'IMMORTELLE is a radical experiment in alternative feature fiction film structure, a cyclical mind fuck, an endgame which plays with classical mythology in the city where FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE and a thousand and one imitations unfolded. The city of Eurospy films (COPLAN CASSE TOUT), masked super villains (KRIMINAL), KILLING ISTANBUL'DA, Jess Franco's RESEDENCIA POUR ESPIAS, THE CASTLE OF FU MANCHU and VENUS IN FURS. But before that it was Byzantium.

"...it's all false. They're engaged in building Byzantium."

The false prisons, brothels, often spoken of, are never seen, but somehow always present. The city of repetitions. The end of the Western world and the gateway to the East.

"And I don't want to be bothered with eternal complaints about inexact or contradictory details. This report is concerned with objective reality, not with some so-called historical truth," Robbe-Grillet wrote as an epigraph to his 2001 novel REPETITION, and it pertains to all his novels and films from LES GOMMES to THE MAN WHO LIES. With no one around to "report" it, is there an objective reality? It's the old question about the tree falling in the midst of a remote forest. L'IMMORTELLE takes as one of it's main subjects Robbe-Grillet's "concern" with how "reality" in fiction and film is often confused with... quoditian reality.

The Universe can be explored with mathematics as well as with sophisticated, man made crafts, and perhaps it is more practical to keep our theories statistically grounded. Roy Armes has made a case for the symmetrical structures of this and other ARG films, and I'm not going to provide my own counter calculations. My own favorite science-fiction film remains Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYESSY where HAL 9000 fucks up big time and kills everybody, but it ends up being OK because it was all in the Plan. And I'm not talking PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. In theoretical math, algebra, geometry, trignometry there are L's, N's, M's, X's, Y,s, and Z's.

Back on Earth L'IMORTELLE opens and closes with images, taken cinema-verite style from a moving car, of the crumbling walls of Byzantium. The female narrator speculates on the geographical/archaeological/mythological positioning of the city.
Both N. and L. will meet death, or what appears to be death, as they drive past these sames ruins, attempting to flee. Driving in a circle which seemed to be a straight line, they had appointments to keep. L'IMMORTELLE spends most of its run time examining every nook and cranny of Istanbul, the Golden Horn, the towers, the sinister little shops, the mosques, the side streets which all seem maddeningly similar. N. is a French professor in town to lecture but he encounters something outside of his intellectual ken, the beautiful woman with the high cheekbones and entrancing eyes who will lead him down that road where the dogs will be waiting. Twice.

Istanbul is the overwhelming presence in L'IMMORTELLE, a site which promises everything and reveals nothing. Human character is unknowable and not really dependable. There's a thousand and one plots or no plot at all. The potential to imagine intrigues is the most exciting of all intrigues. And in the end there's Death. L.'s face coming into and going out of focus. She's laughing at him, at us, as she rides on the ferry in the final image. Or maybe she's just laughing.

Given the fact that Robbe-Grillet struggled with his crew over the way the film was to be shot, the contribution of sound editor Michel Fano becomes of enormous importance. The exotic music of Georges Delerue and the wailing female vocalist present an audio scenario of equal fascination to the visual mise-en-scene: the sounds of construction, the crashes, the various narrations/voiceovers, the barking of the dogs give us an alternate scenario which can be experienced with or without reference to what one sees. It's an eerie and rewarding experience to just sit back, eyes shut, and LISTEN to this film.

Although it's related to the nouvelle vague L'IMMORTELLE is not really a New Wave film in the way Godard's A BOUT DE SOUFFLE or the debut features of Truffaut, Rivette, Chabrol and Resnais are. It occupies its own unique spatial-temporal continuum. It doesn't break away as much as it reinvents reality and cinema, offering a formal path of consciousness which one may take or leave.

Thanks to Robert Guest.

(C) Robert Monell, 2008

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