André (Jacques Doniol-Valcroze) is a French schoolteacher in Turkey who has arrived recently and knowing nobody is pondering his next move at how to spend the rest of the month or so that he has to kill while waiting for his job to begin. He spends a lot of time in his apartment room by the docks, staring out between the slats of his blinds, where he notes an older fisherman likes to sit out on a chair and observe the world, but does he have another agenda, like the apparent tourist with the two large dogs does? Or is André reading too much into things? Whichever, when he meets the enigmatic woman (Françoise Brion) who seems to know more than she's letting on, it signals a change...
Writer and director Alain Robbe-Grillet made his name with the so-called nouveau romains, novels which dispensed with conventions and delved into entirely new methods of holding a reader's attention. Naturally, with French cinema swiftly moving into its New Wave and shaking up the form forever, he was courted to craft his own movies and the result was one of the greatest mysteries of the medium, Last Year at Marienbad directed by Alain Resnais. Oddly, Robbe-Grillet had nothing to do with the actual shooting of that movie, content to have penned the script and leaving the direction to Resnais, so when the time came to make his debut with L'Immortelle it was the first time he had ever been on a set.
That said, it was largely locations he was dealing with aside from a few interiors, but he was of a very strong opinion about what he wanted his film to present. Unfortunately for him, the public and tastemakers were wanting Last Year at Marienbad Part 2, and while this film obsesses over memory as much as the previous effort has, almost everyone who saw this came away with the opinion that either Robbe-Grillet was trying to replicate his acclaim with a poor facsimile, or was heading off in directions so cerebral that it was possible he alone was able to grasp what it was he was attempting to convey. With prints hard to come by for decades, his debut and indeed many of the other movies he helmed became lost in a half-recalled cult flick wilderness.
Which in a way was quite appropriate in light of the impression they left you with, but even so with the small coterie of followers who appreciated the tricks and mental sleight of hand L'Immortelle was concocting, there were many more who gave this a chance and were left intensely bored by the end, if they made it that far. Oblique was the word to describe the stone-faced André's journey from lonely foreigner to possibly bereaved lover, as nothing here was spelled out, and there were various interpretations of what Robbe-Grillet was getting at, though relating a linear plot did not appear to be one of them. What we do know is the protagonist meets and falls in love with the woman, but she is always distant in spite of intimations of intimacy, then suddenly she is out of his life leaving him adrift.
Except he seemed fairly adrift even before the woman left, and during their relationship too, with the director representing their failure to truly connect romantically by use of many shots of them standing and staring at things in a selection of locations. It skirts too close to self-parody, the stereotypically impenetrable art movie, in a way that Resnais did not, all the more curious that there were marked similarities between L'Immortelle and Marienbad yet this equally indistinct conundrum began to drag early on and never really recovered. Not for want of packing in the symbols and motifs, either, with just about every character able to represent death of some sort, and likely the impermanence of memory to boot should you so desire it, not to mention the dogs which at one recurring sequence actually do symbolise the leads' demise. This could have been a tale of a doomed affair, a travelogue where the destination refuses to give up its secrets, or possibly a spy yarn where there is some mission or other taking place that André can barely perceive of, but it was not for the casual viewer.