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April 10, 2014

Movie Review: L’immortelle (1963, Blu-ray)

Movie Review by Greg Goodsell

Directed by Alain Robbe-Grillet

How can one accurately review a film that is inherently beyond criticism? The screenwriter behind the prototypical art-house snoozer Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Alain Robbe-Grillet bravely goes beyond mere cinematic syntax to drag the viewer through a series of tableaux that are by themselves beyond comprehension. Seeing that this probably wouldn’t have sold tickets, Robbe-Grillet had the good sense to hire the frostily beautiful Françoise Brion and hinge the story on “kind of, sort of” sexual acts. 

A morose-looking professor (Jacques Doniol-Valcroze) arrives in Istanbul. He’s glum and forlorn, a Stranger in a Strange Land. Aforementioned pretty lady (Françoise Brion) gives him a lift. He informs here that he is in Istanbul for the next two years. They go to a party. The camera drifts over several people, they get and leave, the camera is obscured by people walking in front of it, etc. We learn that the professor’s name is Andre. Not knowing anyone, he asks his newfound female friend to translate Turkish. “I don’t know a word of Turkish,” she says, and then turns around and uses perfect Turkish to a tour guide. The professor confronts her and she says something to the effect of “I don’t know Turkish, I only know how to speak Turkish when I talk to the Turks.” I have no idea.

In what obviously proved to be an inspiration to Jesus Franco, the two go to a nightclub where a belly dancer gives a seductive dance. Repairing to the professor’s apartment, Brion does a similar seductive dance prior what we expect to be a sex scene before the camera pulls away. We get lots of hangdog expressions of the professor – and why, we may ask? For someone with the personality of a dishrag, he’s making it with this sexy, swinging chick. The two take a boat ride, the camera pulls away in one take – and then we see on another ship. Blinds are opened and closed.  

We discover that the woman’s name is Lale, Lucille, and Leila, whatever. She offers up cryptic sentences such as “the crumbling ramparts of Byzantium," and “secret prisons, girls being sold … all kinds of bizarre trafficking." Essentially, the circular motion of the films seems to be centered on the woman’s – or is it the man’s? – Impending violent death.

This reviewer would put L’immortelle far above Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), another precocious bit of Gaelic pretension on the snooze-meter. I have yet to watch Godard’s sci-fi epic without drifting off to sleep, even after pounding down numerous Diet Cokes. L’immortelle greatly benefits from the sumptuous black-and-white photography of Maurice Barry. While it has its distinct rhythms, uncouth American viewers such as myself will quickly give up on the film, insistent that movies have to be about something.

In either case, the release is quite step up from the typical Redemption DVD release, a label more accustomed to releasing cheap lesbian nuns-in-prison pictures. As for extras on the DVD/Blu-Ray, there are three previews for three other Alain Robbe-Grillet pictures and a 28-minute interview with Robbe-Grillet who cheerfully admits that L’immortelle doesn’t make sense – and isn’t supposed to!

Watch it if you must. All in all, L’immortelle reminded me why I usually shun movies from France!  

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