Wednesday, January 20, 2016

L'Immortelle (1963)

A droopy-eyed, sad looking young professor (Jacques Doniol-Valcroze) vacationing in Turkey meets a beautiful, but mysterious young woman (Françoise Brion), who he continues to meet over the next few days on his excursions around the place. He is instantly attracted to her, and she does reciprocate his feelings, albeit in a somewhat reserved manner. She refuses to divulge where she lives, often asks him not to accompany her to certain places, and is quite reluctant to even tell him her name. The professor is undeniably enchanted, and doesn't seem to mind so long as he gets to see her.

The dream romance comes to an abrupt halt, one day, when the woman completely disappears. The professor becomes obsessed, visiting their old meeting places, waiting there 'til wee hours, inquiring around town with whatever little knowledge he has about the woman, despite a huge language barrier and communication issue with the Turkish natives. His search gets increasingly frustrating when people begin to even deny the existence of such a woman as described by the professor, and he is constantly misled in his quest. Eventually he does bump into her. Or does he? Does the woman now exist only in his memories or in his dreams? Will he ever get an answer to what actually happened?

These intriguing questions form the crux of Alain-Robbe Grillet's "L'Immortelle" aka "The Immortal One" (1963). The filmmaker's directorial debut is far from being a straightforward mystery of a missing person. It plays out more like a series of vague recollections of a disappointed man who gets increasingly disoriented in his quest for his object of affection. The result is a surreal, eccentrically edited, fascinating mix of fragmented memories, some real and some, perhaps imagined.

Robbe-Grillet who wrote the screenplay for "Last Year at Marienbad" (1961) uses many of the elements that made the Alain Resnais film a great success. Devices like a befuddling, fractured narrative with gliding camerawork, an unreliable narration/narrative, off-kilter editing, and a dream-like realm with characters that seem to float about in a sleepwalking daze, or simply stand around like zombies while the primary characters in a frame interact, contribute to create a very hypnotic, trance-like atmosphere.

There is a very sublime, evocative middle-eastern score playing in the background, sometimes only with haunting vocals, male or female, further giving the film a more spellbinding quality. The atmosphere created by Robbe-Grillet accentuates the mystical qualities of the locales. 

It may not seem so at the outset, but "L'Immortelle" boasts of thematically rich content, providing for an intellectually stimulating viewing experience. The complexities of the human mind are explored via a psychological tendency of sometimes crossing the barrier between fantasy and reality owing to the unpredictable and volatile nature of human memory, and how it could somehow deceive us, making us believe something else, not strictly adhering to the facts. The tendency to fill in gaps in order to make a broken memory whole, in the process, drastically changing the events within it, is examined. A piece of paper is visibly blank, shown repeatedly to the viewer, but the professor keeps going back to it, trying to find an address on it!

The recurring motif of the confusion surrounding the name of the woman ties with the important theme of identity, personal as well as ethnic. A language barrier separating people of different ethnic identities is present throughout. At least three different languages are used in the film, and whenever any language other than French is spoken, it is not translated in the subtitles, perhaps to make the viewer feel the professor's frustration of not being able to understand the people around him.

Only the woman can speak all languages, a somewhat abstract symbol of a universal being, someone devoid of a disparate identity. It may not be a stretch to imagine that Robbe-Grillet modeled this character as the universal representation of a woman as an enigma.

At times, identities switch or overlap. The woman and the professor's maid both give him the same name, in practically the same fashion. Could he be mixing up the two, and only imagining that the woman ever told him his name? In the third act, when the narrative takes increasingly maddening turns, identities are literally replaced, when characters switch places or are replaced by others, when the professor plays out earlier scenes from memory. Sometimes two distinct events merge into one: a byproduct of a confused mind?

A theme of mortality and an inevitable end to everything, even relationships runs parallel in the conversation between the lead pair. The professor tries to make sense of the woman's cryptic ramblings, but only the viewer may be able to find some meaning in it in the larger context of the film. The camera lingers on the ruins across the city, suggesting that anything glorious eventually crumbles. Any attempt to recreate or restore something that existed is merely an act of imitation. Its genuineness is lost, much like an event exists, but its memory is a fake recreation of the mind. It is never the real thing, corroborated by the fact that the professor recreates a single event in very various ways, thereby destroying the identity of the actual event.

The theme of genuineness vs artificiality is given a literal form in some earlier sequences. The woman says that any rebuilding work of the Byzantium is pointless and fake. The man outside the mosque keeps harping about the genuineness of the mosque and how old and ancient the monument is. The seller of artifacts meanwhile is seen selling the same article twice, both times claiming that it is genuine.

One could go on dissecting the nuances embedded within this highly rewarding film of great substance despite its modest length, and perhaps keep coming back to it and end up reading it in different ways. Very much in the spirit of the more acclaimed "Last Year at Marienbad", one could call "L'Immortelle" its overlooked first cousin that is far more meditative and varied in its structure, and just as beautiful, if not more so.

Score: 10/10

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