The Immortal Story ★★½

FILM SCHOOL DROPOUT: A 2017 year-long movie challenge
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Week 12: Orson Welles

As any middle-aged artist can tell you, one of the great tragedies about getting older is that it simply saps you of much of the desperate energy that drives so much creative work in youth; you get a bit slower, you become a bit more complacent, you start living a bit more indulgent a life, you start worrying about middle-aged topics like family, finances and real-estate, you start picking up expensive and time-consuming middle-aged hobbies like fine-wine, collecting art, international travel, etc., and suddenly you find yourself with just not the same kind of motivation you had in your twenties for getting new projects done, that incessant drive that guarantees that most artists put out the majority of their best work within the first half of their careers, not the second half. And so it was with Orson Welles too; a Hollywood burnout by the time he was in his forties, because of a series of boy-genius clashes with studios over maverick productions that sometimes went spectacularly wrong (but see my reviews earlier this week of The Magnificent Ambersons, The Stranger, and The Lady from Shanghai for more), Welles spent most of the 1950s and '60s as an obese expat bon vivant in Europe, revered by the French New Wave in a way he never was in Hollywood, and living the good life of wine, women and song as he traipsed his way across the continent, starting literally a dozen different self-funded projects that would each only get half-off the ground before finding their financing falling apart, Welles by this point not really caring enough about any of them to put in the hard work of actually finishing them up.

In fact, it's kind of a miracle that Welles finished any movies at all in these years; and most of them, frankly, came about because of European television's new Mid-Century Modernist commitment to fine-art projects, such as today's movie being reviewed, 1968's The Immortal Story. Based on a short story by Isak Dinesen (most famous for her novel Out of Africa, adapted into a lush Oscarbait epic in the '80s starring Robert Redford and Meryl Streep), this was originally commissioned by the French government to run on their national television network, a short 60-minute piece that was originally going to be paired with another Dinesen story for an eventual two-hour theatrical release, before Welles pulled out of the second half over concerns about the professionalism of the Hungarian crew where filming was to take place. (Instead it mostly showed theatrically through a series of high-profile festival appearances, then was paired with Luis Buñuel's Simon of the Desert for a short theatrical run in the US.) Unfortunately, though, as with so many of the projects from these years made under such circumstances, the results are both pretentious and mediocre, the kind of talky fine-art mess that is precisely produced by governmental cultural agencies as a way of feeling self-important and justifying their budget; and in fact about the only reason to even watch this forgettable and forgotten production anymore is because of it mostly being filmed at Welles' actual house in rural Spain, as well as being one of the few color features he ever did in his career (a contractual obligation of this TV commission). Other than that, though, this is clearly a product of a broken Welles who is well past his prime, increasingly tired of the constant battles to raise financing for his evermore less passionate projects, and who mainly finds himself simply wanting to work just enough to afford his now sybaritic lifestyle of five-star European restaurants and winters on the Mediterranean.

Coming tomorrow, Orson Welles Week wraps up with a look at one of his last-ever projects, the clever metafictional documentary F for Fake from 1973.

Jason Pettus liked this review