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Blu-ray Review: ‘L’immortelle’ a forgotten staple of French arthouse

Blu-ray Review: ‘L’immortelle’ a forgotten staple of French arthouse

L'immortelle Poster

Written and directed by Alain Robbe-Grillet
France, 1963

Just by examining the title, L’immortelle appears to be the quintessential Alain Robbe-Grillet film. It’s French, it’s feminine (that is, it’s being used to describe a woman), and it translates to “The Immortal”, a reference to how often the woman appears posthumously thanks to its unique narrative structure. Robbe-Grillet is primarily known as a writer, and known in the film world for having penned Resnais’s equally immortal Last Year at Marienbad just 2 years before this feature. The sudden explosion of discussion for Marienbad quickly made it synonymous with French arthouse flair. It was difficult yet rewarding; beautiful yet quietly violent. His hand in Marienbad is immediately evident in L’immortelle, even down to Resnais’s influence in spending half the film covering the surrounding architecture. Despite exclusion from discussion of those involved with the nouvelle vague (except for his various writing credits), Robbe-Grillet’s dreamlike scenarios make comfortable bedfellows with his equally mysterious Left Bank colleagues. This missed legacy has been revitalized through L’immortelle‘s Blu-ray restoration, along with five other Robbe-Grillet works, which are all now available through Kino’s Redemption distribution series.

A writer at heart, Robbe-Grillet is experienced enough to deconstruct a story and rearrange it so even the most mundane statements have power with the right context. The Man (Jacques Doinol-Valcroze), once referred to as André (though likely a lie), finds Lale or Lucille or The Woman (Françoise Brion) in a coastal town of Turkey. She accompanies him in his travels, visiting the desolated architecture, the large mosques, the bazaar, and other tourist traps specifically designed for those who come to Turkey in the mindset of reaching the exotic. They discuss Turkey, fetishized jewelry, the French language, the fake houses, the grave sites, and how fake yet wonderfully crafted everything around them appears to be, all for the sake of maintaining a proto-Western culture and conforming to “the Turkey of our dreams.” They do not discuss the mysterious men always watching them, her real name, why she insists she doesn’t speak Turkish, why a belly dancer looks so much like her, or virtually any aspect about her past. When the web of deception has all but engulfed the Man, she disappears, leaving him to retrace his steps through town, revisiting the architecture, to discover miniature dark truths about each place, hopefully leading him to her whereabouts. When he does find her, information and seclusion become more valuable as her time spent with him appears even more precious. Their mysterious attraction to one another inevitably leads to their respective downfalls as memory and curiosity into what lies beneath the romantic Turkey proves fatal.
L'immortelle - Françoise Brion

To frame the story in a standard mystery-romance setting would be to deny the audience of their intelligence. There is no Arthur Conan Doyle style of investigation: the Man is not a detective, but he still wishes to untangle a mystery using his only professional tool — his memory. Sticking to the familiar Resnais ways of purposefully obfuscated editing, Robbe-Grillet forms the narrative out of these memories, making the Man recall past conversations between himself and the Woman to inform us of her dark past. She makes a statement at the mosque: “Women aren’t allowed to pray. They’re impure, and only good for love-making.” It’s originally made as a pseudo-affectation toward Islam, but later repeated as yet another clue toward her being used in sex trafficking and the sort of loss of identity (again, coupled with not having a standard name) that comes with it. A row of dilapidated houses, initially dismissed by the Woman as yet another fake cultural artifact to attract tourists, is revisited and found to be harboring another woman, immediately terrified of his presence. It’s likely a shelter for the women who share the fate of our Woman, but Robbe-Grillet is careful never to literalize through his images. He leaves what little explanation he needs to give in the hands of a mutual friend, Catherine (played by his wife, Catherine Robbe-Grillet). She speaks of missing women, sex, and what lies beneath the coastal town. It is the most direct explanation given, as Robbe-Grillet, even as a writer, wishes to speak in images.

The strange narrative style allows Robbe-Grillet to play and experiment with the visual language of cinema, as well. Multiple times, the Man is shown outside from a voyeuristic high angle. It’s then matched with a shot from the shades of a window, normally to pan to the voyeur, only to reveal the Man who inspects a different scene. It’s playful and confusing visual trickery, but it’s also an act of displaying when the Man is engaged in remembering. This trickery also plays a role in shrouding several of the trafficking player into a realm of mystery, cutting them in and out of crowds, roads, and familiar scenery. This disappearing act is mirrored in his search for the Woman as she casually strolls through his memories where she doesn’t belong, often as a personification of his desire. Casual visual deception was heavily implemented in Marienbad to play with time, but utilized here for emotions and thoughts.
L'immortelle - Jacques Doinol-Valcroze

The shot opening the film is a long take of the Woman’s face coming slowly into focus, her neck bent back to reveal how little she is wearing, her eyes display a manner comfortable with the man’s lust. She’s perhaps happy in being able to fulfill his desire, but Robbe-Grillet is not that misogynistic — this is surely her first freely advanced sexual act in a long time, making it an act of liberation. She cries “I’m free” as she speeds down a moonlit road, only to meet her fate at the hands of a lone doberman, unmistakably belonging to her captor. Her expression, now lit by investigators’ flashlights, rhymes with the first shot. Indeed, if her first claim to freedom was through sexual liberation, this final expression is freedom of another sort, of finally being liberated of her captors. This is no accident on the part of Robbe-Grillet, who is able to mingle love and death, sex and pain (he and his wife both melded BDSM into their work) into a common language. The narrative and visual techniques of L’immortelle are those of poetry — repeating verses and rhyming complete stanzas. It’s difficult, and not as impressive as some of his previous collaborations, yet still provides a sense of aesthetic engagement like no other writer could manage.

The Blu-ray transfer is a stunning black-and-white restoration, complementing the architectural visions of cinematographer Maurice Barry. Included on the disc are several trailers for the other movies in Kino’s Robbe-Grillet series as well as a half-hour interview with the director recounting his experiences in filming his first feature. Though lacking in supplements, Kino’s release is an essential move in giving the works of a missed master another shine.

— Zach Lewis