Many years ago when I was working as a writer for Life Magazine under Thomas Thompson, one of the greatest parts of my working week came on Monday, when the screening schedule of newly released films would be distributed throughout the office, and we’d all post the list on our respective bulletin boards. In that resolutely pre-digital era, every new release was screened in its original 35mm format at one of the many excellent facilities that existed in Manhattan at the time, and being absolutely omnivorous about film, I would make it a point to attend every single screening, every single day, of absolutely every film that was being released.
And thus it was one day that I found myself in a screening room at Preview Theater, located at 1600 Broadway, sitting in a screening room watching Alain Robbe-Grillet’s debut feature, L’Immortelle. The film absolutely stunned me with its originality and brilliance in every aspect, from its enigmatic screenplay, to the dreamy mise en scene. But unlike the much better known Last Year at Marienbad, which Robbe-Grillet scripted but did not direct — Alain Resnais did the honors on that one — for some reason, L’Immortelle never caught on in the states, even on the art house circuit.
The film’s genesis is as curious as the film itself. As I wrote for Wikipedia in 2010, “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.” Everyone is the class was simply floored by the film; it’s that good.
So I’m delighted to note that L’Immortelle is finally getting the DVD and Blu-ray release it so richly deserves from the British Film Institute, with a street date of June 23, 2014 — 51 years after the film was first released, as part of the box set “Alain Robbe-Grillet: Six Films 1964-1974.” Now, since this is a British release, it’s in PAL format, and is a Region 2 DVD and Blu-ray release, so a conventional American DVD player won’t be able to handle it. But if you don’t have an all-region DVD player by now, which at this point costs as little as $100 or so, all I can say is “why”? The BFI release follows hard on the heels of the French release of the same box set, but without English subtitles. Now we have the film available to all. It’s about time.
Robbe-Grillet himself continually expressed his dissatisfaction with L’Immortelle – see this television interview, in French, by clicking here, in which he discusses the film — complaining that the crew was clumsy and unresponsive, and that the film didn’t turn out as he intended; perhaps this is one of the reasons it’s taken so long for the film to come out, after Robbe-Grillet’s recent death. I can’t help thinking that if this film had received proper worldwide distribution when it first came out, the whole of French New Wave film history would have been altered – it is a brilliant piece of work. Now you can you see for yourself. And you can pre-order it now.