Alain Robbe-Grillet was one of France’s most distinguished novelists and filmmakers, but his first film, L’ Immortelle, remains his most effective, even though the director himself didn’t particularly care for it. It’s difficult to see why, because of all his films, it is the most economical, accessible, and fully realized, and Maurice Barry’s black and white cinematography is immaculate and mesmerically evocative. Even though Robbe-Grillet had much larger budgets for his later films, none of them comes close to the power of this largely unavailable work.
L, a woman (Françoise Brion) haunts the daytime reveries of N, a man (Jacques Doniol-Valcroze), who can’t be sure if he’s seen her before, or ever, and keeps losing track of her in the streets and back alleys of Istanbul, here used for its full exoticist impact. Time has no meaning in the film, which shifts from the present, to the past, and perhaps to the future with trance like abandon; budgeted at less than $100,000, the film nevertheless manages to create a world entirely its own.
As I wrote for Wikipedia of the film, “Robbe-Grillet, who was one of the most successful screenwriters of the French New Wave — for example, Alain Resnais’ 1961 film Last Year at Marienbad — longed to direct a feature film, but no offers of backing were forthcoming. At length, a Belgian producer agreed to let Robbe-Grillet direct a film from his own screenplay on the condition that the film be shot in Turkey, using “blocked funds” (profits from an earlier film that could not be taken out of the country) owed to Cocinor, the French production company. Robbe-Grillet complied, and in his first feature film as a director, created a dreamlike, erotic fantasy.
L’ Immortelle has never been legally available on DVD, and at present circulates only in bootlegs, and in 35mm prints circulated by the French Cultural Ministry, which loans the film to museums and colleges from time to time. Thus, the film is almost impossible to see. Dino de Laurentiis acquired the Italian distribution rights after production, and officially, in the film’s credits, L’Immortelle is listed as French/Italian co-production, although it was shot entirely in and around Istanbul, with a mostly Turkish crew.”
I was able to secure the loan of a 35mm print of the film for my summer film class in 2009, through the courtesy of the French Cultural Ministry, and screened it for my students, who were stunned by the beauty and sensuousness of the film. As one person said, “it’s a shame that our generation doesn’t have any filmmakers like that working today.” Now, that’s an overstatement, as there are many talented young film and digital video artists today, but still, L’ Immortelle remains one of a kind, a film unlike any other.