Watching Alain Robbe-Grillet’s first effort as a filmmaker, L’immortelle, reminded me of the heady days of my early exposure to the European art film. It is not a great film, although for a first effort, it is a surprisingly fluid and assured one. It is, however, so clearly a product of that moment in film history when anything seemed possible that this movie made in 1963 feels tantalizingly new and exciting. Seeing it for the first time took me back to a moment when innovation was rewarded and sought, when a film was evaluated beyond its grosses, when one’s “inner child” sought to be an adult, not to remain an infant.
The situation (you can’t really call it a story) is simple. “N,” (Jacques Daniel Valcroze) is a Frenchman newly arrived in Istanbul to teach. He meets “L,” (Françoise Brion) a beautiful woman who speaks French, and with whom he has a brief affair. When she inexplicably disappears, N becomes obsessed with finding her again, but when he finally does, she is reluctant to tell him where she has been, eventually leading to an ending which, in hindsight, can be seen as implicit in the film’s beginning.
While never entirely lacking the fragmentation, irrationality, repetition and paradoxes of most of Robbe-Grillet’s work, L’immortelle is reasonably straightforward. It is more or less a mystery in which, however, there is little at stake beyond a state of mind heavy with desire and lingering dread. Fantasies mix with the everyday to produce an ambiguity heightened by questions of L’s identity or existence beyond N’s imagination. So while the situation is simple, its execution is not. And while the ending provides a resolution, it is one that falls apart as soon as you think about it in any detail.
Irksome as that lack of closure may be, it is as central to Robbe-Grillet’s method as the slow pace and sparkling evocation of the mildly foreign within the familiar, achieved through Istanbul’s intricate, lapidary decoration, crumbling ruins and everyday banality. It is a vaguely threatening, dangerous and decaying world, yet nothing really all that terrible occurs. The film turns the heightened awareness of a tourist into a barely contained expression of frustrated desire. Tuned to the unique, the slightly uncanny, to hints of unspeakable lusts, the world becomes febrile fantasy for both N and the viewer.
One can question this “Orientalist” perspective, but at least in filmmaking terms, the results are svelte and silken. Yes, Robbe-Grillet treats Turkey as backdrop to a Frenchman’s erotic projections, but at least those obsessions are in the service of the unconventional and the imaginative. For what is most refreshing about L’immortelle is watching an artist revel in the potential of a new medium and doing what he thinks is right, regardless of opinion. The film commits, in short, the cardinal sin for today’s predigested, sanitized, cookie-cutter culture: it is distinctive.