‘Immortality’ Review: Hollywood Horror Show

Photo: Half Mermaid Productions

The last time anybody heard from Marissa Marcel was in 1999. The Hollywood star, whose movies include a 1968 erotic thriller called Ambrosio and the unreleased 1970 murder mystery Minsky, was on the verge of a comeback with Two of Everything. But this film, like her last, was never completed. Along with the movie, Marcel herself disappeared, becoming an enigmatic cult figure in the eyes of her devotees and a footnote in the history books of Hollywood.

In Immortality, the latest game from Sam Barlow, the designer of Her Story and Telling Lies, you’re given access to a large cache of footage from all three of Marcel’s pictures. Accessed within a virtual editing suite designed to resemble an old Moviola, this cache holds nearly 300 clips. You don’t view these clips in chronological sequence. Rather, you use an editing technique called the “match cut,” jumping from object to object within each clip and scene to scene.

In this way, you begin to sift through the archive, gradually piecing together Marcel’s life through her movies. There are tantalizing recordings of the actor in full flow — a knockout performance from Manon Gage — as well as the unguarded seconds before and after the clapper board snaps down. We see rehearsals and fleeting moments of what appear to be home footage, the information slowly amassing across the decades in no straightforward order. At first, Immortality is disorientating, an associative cavalcade of images, objects, and dialogue. And then, step by step, something verging on a meaningful arc emerges. You come to understand the fate she met alongside her two most prominent collaborators, and a touching portrait of these three artists slides into focus. So, too, does the sinister side of Hollywood, its excess, violence, and propensity to chew through talent.

Immortality is a live-action video game, a genre that was fleetingly popular in the 1990s and has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years. Games such as 2016’s The Bunker and 2019’s Erica made minor splashes with players, and Netflix has continued to experiment with interactive programming following 2018’s Bandersnatch, a “choose your own adventure” episode of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror series. But Barlow’s titles are altogether different beasts. Intricate and more profoundly interactive, they thrive on the ambiguity and space afforded by nonlinear structures.

Barlow’s games combine the presentation of genre movies with the flexibility of video-game structures. You are constantly watching and constantly doing, namely fiddling with digital interfaces. In Her Story and Telling Lies, you type keywords such as “knife” into a vast database to surface videos tagged with such terms. Now the method involves pausing the action, zooming in, and selecting an object — a prop, character, a piece of scenery — to match cut (teleport feels just as accurate) to another scene. Functionally, the mechanic is reminiscent of a point-and-click adventure, but with a controller in hand, the left analogue stick rewinding and fast-forwarding, speeding up and slowing down, the action is more dynamic. You are essentially editing Immortalitys story on the fly, albeit with a detective’s eye. Slowly, in your trawling (and this is a queasy achievement of the game), you may begin to recognize your own behavior as that of an obsessive fan, perhaps even a stalker.

Immortality is rich with cinematic details to obsess over. Barlow and his collaborators (essentially an entire movie-production crew) have beautifully captured the idiosyncratic styles of these fictional films’ eras. Ambrosio, whose director resembles a veteran Alfred Hitchcock (played with plumb-y aplomb by John Earl Robinson), is filled with the soft, impressionistic lighting and sumptuous painted backgrounds of the 1960s; Minsky, filmed in 1970, takes its cues from New Hollywood, a handheld camera meandering about grimy New York sets; the brighter, more straightforward visuals of 1999’s Two of Everything emphasize a dual-identity weirdness that is pure David Lynch. As you stitch together these pictures in your mind, you come to appreciate not only the many artistic decisions that went into the fictional filmmakers’ casting, performances, and set designs but the attitudes that ultimately shaped them.

With Marcel directing your focus, it becomes clear these films reflect the uneasy misogyny of their eras. “Marissa, your job is to be looked at,” the actor is told by her director at a table read for Ambrosio. While the movies later come to critique such chauvinism, they simultaneously lean into ever more disturbing sexual violence — the male gaze is perpetuated throughout the decades. It turns out that you are viewing these films, to a large extent, through the eyes of John Durick (Hans Christopher), the director of photography on Ambrosio and the director of Minsky and Two of Everything. A creeping sense of unease festers: Is the match cut simply a way of exploring Durick’s psyche and obsessions? It is, but Durick also stands for a broader set of eyes. By lapping up his obsessions, and those of men more generally, the game suggests that we, the audience, are complicit in this ongoing replication. The trouble is Immortality, directed by a man who is also one of video games’ few auteurs, never truly extricates itself from this process. Barlow’s game satisfies the male gaze while attempting to skewer it.

But there is more to chew over in Immortality than the ethics of onscreen violence. At shocking moments, its images erupt into actual bodily harm, and so does the foreboding sense that fiction and reality are bleeding into each other. The unease is multiplied by Marcel’s appearance, the star barely aging a day between her first movie in 1968 and her last in 1999, while Durick becomes visibly more wrinkled. These details swirl and marinate in you mind’s eye until, perhaps entirely by accident, you puncture the celluloid’s facade. Without spoiling exactly what happens, the effect is utterly chilling, a jump scare that steadily transforms into something sadder and more intriguing. These elements only magnify the pain at the core of Immortality, the sense that Marcel’s anguish, frozen on film, could last an eternity.

Rather than a horror or a tragedy, Immortality is perhaps best thought of as an elegy. What lingers in the mind are the human moments between takes when the actors look directly into the lens or chatter among themselves. So convincing are these, so delicately performed (none more so than Ty Molbak as Carl Goodman, the actor in Minsky grappling with the burgeoning sexual politics of the 1970s), you may forget Immortality is entirely fictional. Indeed, more so than any other Barlow game, the appeal here lies as much in the story as in its format. At one point, following a scene filled with practical effects, Marcel bends down to the camera and asks, “Did the earth move for you, too?” Playing Immortality, an ingenious, slippery and utterly absorbing work, the answer is a resounding yes.

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