Q: What record would you take to a desert island?
Allow me to explain.
A castaway finds an improbable art deco structure, quite deserted, on his new desert island home. But when he turns on the power, suddenly a cast of characters in 1920s dress appear, languidly partying, dancing to jazz records, chatting in a somewhat desultory manner about their complicated love lives. The castaway hides from these mysterious newcomers. For days, he hides. Then, having spied on one particular woman and, in his loneliness, fallen for her, he declares himself. But she ignores him.
In fact, all the party guests ignore him. He is entirely invisible and inaudible to them. Furthermore, by careful observation, he slowly establishes that the characters are on a loop, endlessly repeating the activities of a single week. And by listening in still further, he learns why...
Describing "The Invention of Morel", a novel by Adolfo Bioy Casares, Borges wrote, "To classify it as perfect is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole." And this perfection, a startling premise, precise structure, and rich metaphorical implications, attracted the Italian filmmaker Emideo Greco, who analyzed the text carefully to ensure it could be adapted successfully. Abandoning the narrative device of the castaway's journal, Greco found himself with an immediate kind of story, where the audience discovers everything through the protagonist's explorations, but has no privileged access to his thought processes. In fact, by dispensing with any narration, the movie becomes entirely wordless for the first thirty minutes. Even when dialogue is resumed, the hero himself speaks very little of it, and only a few scenes really depend on speech. Apart from John Boorman's Hell in the Pacific, I can think of no other talkie which so dispenses with speech in favor of the timeless sounds of surf and wind. And like the Boorman film, those sounds are an invitation to allegory.
Greco's 1974 movie has an elegant sense of period, slightly reminiscent of Bertolucci's The Conformist, and the kind of improbable multi-national cast you never really see nowadays: Anna Karina, her eyebrows shaved and pencilled in, authentically 1920s style, is the object of desire, Giulio Brogi is the castaway, his political backstory from the novel stripped away so that he becomes like Buster Keaton in The High Sign: "Our hero came from nowhere. He wasn't going anywhere. He got kicked off -- somewhere." And as Morel, the inventor, the English actor John Steiner, a familiar gaunt face appearing for numerous Italian filmmakers from Brass to Bava. He looks like a man who might invent something strange. Just what has he done?
Here's where the film's open-ended allegory yawns before us, and here is where, perhaps belatedly, I must post a Massive Spoiler Alert: Morel has invented a device to record the sounds, appearance and even the tactile qualities—even, he suggests, the consciousness—of himself and his friends for one week. He doesn't tell them of his plan until it's almost complete, because the device has an unfortunate side-effect. In bestowing a kind of immortality upon its subjects (although, if they still think and feel, they will think and feel only perfect recordings of what they first thought and felt that week, fifty years ago), the machine causes the death of the original organic versions. Morel, unable to be with the woman he loved (Karina), has contrived this week on a private island, to record himself with her and thus be by her side forever.
The metaphor is both clear and hazy. It can stand in for many things, from memory to art to a meditation on the nature of time and consciousness. Morel's invention has clear parallels with cinema itself, and so is a natural for movie adaptation. Greco may leave out a lot of the novel's backstory and supporting cast, but he was right to read the book and imagine a movie. These drifting ghosts from the past, incessantly repeating their gestures and speeches, are like long-dead movie stars trapped on the screen: unable to change, learn, grow, age, yet still, immortally, alive.
"So shall they dance, till the end of time" —Ernest Wheldrake.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.