Before Last Year at Marienbad baffled and enthralled cinemagoers worldwide, before a rag-tag group of castaways were stranded in Lost, an Argentine writer published a slender volume that would intrigue and inspire poets and filmmakers for the next seventy years. Its title: The Invention of Morel. In this feature article, we examine that influential novella and the two major film adaptations that followed.
La Invención de Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares (1940) / A.k.a. The Invention of Morel
Publisher: New York Review of Books
Last night, for the hundredth time, I slept in this deserted place. As I looked at the buildings, I thought of what a laborious task it must have been to bring so many stones here. It would have been easy enough — and far more practical — to build an outdoor oven. When I was finally able to sleep, it was very late. The music and the shouting woke me up a few hours later. I have not slept soundly since my escape; I am sure that if a ship, a plane, or any other form of transportation had arrived, I would have heard it. And yet suddenly, unaccountably, on this oppressive summerlike night, the grassy hillside has become crowded with people who dance, stroll up and down, and swim in the pool, as if this were a summer resort like Los Teques or Marienbad.
This passage comes from La Invención de Morel (1940), the classic novella by Argentine fantasist, and Borges protégé, Adolfo Bioy Casares (1914-1999). In its subtle blend of the languid and the ominous (and, more pointedly, its chic resort imagery), it could almost be the work of J.G. Ballard, another master of poetic unease. Ballard, of course, may never have read Casares; Morel’s first English translation appeared in 1964, when Ballard’s obsessions were already well-formed. But it’s possible the influence may have reached him second-hand, via the two Alains, Resnais and Robbe-Grillet: their Last Year at Marienbad (1964), a high-profile arthouse success, is said to have been directly inspired by Morel. And its influence doesn’t stop there.
For a book so short (it’s under a hundred pages long), Morel’s impact has been extraordinary — at least outside Anglophone territories. Its admirers and imitators run from avant-garde filmmakers to Nobel Laureates (Octavio Paz, Gabriel García Márquez) and populist TV shows (J.J. Abrams’s Lost); a pretty broad cultural spectrum. The book itself has been filmed several times, most notably in France (a made-for-TV movie in 1967) and Italy (a theatrical feature in 1974, with Anna Karina). But does the book still deserve its sterling reputation?
Happily, yes. The Invention of Morel is an expert blend of science fiction, metaphysics and the macabre, quite beautiful in style and conception. Its language (in a new-and-improved translation by Ruth L.C. Simms, published by the New York Review of Books) is concise, elegant and tightly-controlled, the perfect vehicle for its poetic ideas. (It’s sobering to reflect that Casares was all of 26 years old when Morel was first published.) It takes the form of a diary kept by an escaped prisoner (never named), fleeing political persecution in his native Venezuela; after many hardships, he has found his way to a deserted island, likewise nameless, shunned by locals as a place of death and disease. Exploring the jungle he comes across a decaying residence, long-deserted and overgrown — a villa/museum, with a swimming pool and chapel. To his alarm, the museum comes abruptly to light and life, and is filled all at once with party guests in fashionable 1920s dress. He hides himself awkwardly, but the guests seem not to notice him, carrying on their conversations as if he weren’t there.
As time passes he notices other odd phenomena: there are two suns in the sky during the day, and two moons at night. A wall demolished earlier with a crowbar miraculously heals itself, and proves impervious to damage. And he finds himself increasingly drawn towards one of the guests, the elegant and mysterious Faustine; he’s relieved to see her rejecting the advances of a man called Morel, the wealthy scientist who owns the island. But as he continues to observe these strange phantoms over the coming weeks, he starts to understand the grim truth of their fate.
Morel’s passion for Faustine, we learn, has driven him to a terrible act. A scientific genius, he’s filled his island with high-tech recording instruments, designed to capture — in three dimensions, with disturbing physical precision — the lives of himself and his party guests, over the course of a single week. In this way they will all achieve immortality, their recorded images reliving the same day over and over again, played in an endless loop by machines concealed underground and powered by the remorseless ocean tides. But there’s something Morel hasn’t told his guests: by recording the soul you kill the original, inducing in it a kind of creeping, irreversible leprosy. As his machines record their yacht leaving the island, they record also the final moments of life of those human originals, now dead for a decade or more…
Reading Morel, its influence on Marienbad is immediately apparent. Each takes place in a stylised limbo filled with elegant mannequins; each is a detective story, centring on an ill-fated romance and a forgotten crime; and each is pervaded by a mounting sense of doom. And both, of course, are surrealist works. Though the book is, on the surface, a science-fiction narrative with a “conventional” resolution, it is surrealist in the most literal sense, dealing with the superimposition of one reality (the past) over another (the present). Morel is, amongst other things, a metaphor for memory, that peculiar trick of the mind by which two distinct temporal conditions may be held in place at once. Memory, of course, is also famously at the heart of Marienbad — and this is surely where Robbe-Grillet’s debt to Casares is inarguable.
Morel ends on a note of romantic melancholy, flawlessly-judged. Throughout this eerie and unforgettable tale, Casares is in complete control: the impression is of wandering through a dark and beguiling dream, piling one impossibility on another, until the final course of action becomes inevitably, terribly clear. Morel is surely the benchmark against which all other studies of unrequited love must be weighed; beside its tidy brevity, even Love in the Time of Cholera by García Márquez begins to seem a little, well, chunky round the midriff. Both Borges and Octavio Paz pronounced the book “perfect”, and it’s hard to disagree. The Invention of Morel is, in every sense of the word, fantastic.
L’Invention de Morel (France 1967)
D: Claude-Jean Bonnordot. S: Claude-Jean Bonnordot, Michel Andrieu. Novella: Adolfo Bioy Casares. P: Pierre Fleury (ORTF). Cast: Alain Saury, Juliette Mills, Didier Conti. French dist (DVD): Ina Éditions.
Adapting any book to the screen is a tricky business; in translating its ideas from one medium to the other, there is always the risk that the soul of the piece will be left behind, giving us only a chain of lifeless images. Morel was genius enough to solve that problem, albeit at the expense of his original subjects — and with that in mind, it’s perhaps fortunate that filmmakers do not have access to Morel’s resources. Eyeing their crumbling shelves, bibliophiles might not consider the boon to cinema a fair trade-off.
Still, Casares has not been ill-served by his adapters. Turning the written word into moving frames is an unreliable sort of metempsychosis, but Morel’s soul has, thus far, proven surprisingly resilient to the process. It’s surprising because the novella is a particularly delicate and subjective piece, richly descriptive of the interior experience. It’s rare for films to capture the mood or essence of such books, unless they resort to outright fabrication — that is to say, if the filmmaker opts to diverge from a reverent transcription of the novel’s events, and chooses instead to dramatize its themes, an approach which may require a completely new scenario to be devised. (Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker  and Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin  are two successful examples of the latter approach; and in this sense, it’s perfectly legitimate to read Last Year at Marienbad  as Morel’s premier screen outing.)
All the more surprising, then, that the official adaptations of Casares should adhere so closely to the source. L’Invention de Morel (1967) may have the distinction of being the first; though an Argentine version is said to exist, all details of the production have thus far eluded this reviewer. Morel ’67 is a feature-length film made for French TV by Claude-Jean Bonnordot, a director with an otherwise unexceptional CV. The film is exceptionally good, suffused throughout with a marvellous atmosphere of melancholy and decay. It mirrors Casares in almost every respect, omitting only those details impossible to realise on a television-scale budget (the flooded marshlands, for example, where the narrator is obliged to live during the earlier part of his stay).
Shot on 16mm colour film, Morel ’67 appears to have enjoyed a comfortable (if not extravagant) budget, with good location-work and sophisticated multi-level interior sets. With its fluid camerawork and painstaking construction, it could easily pass for a cinema production: not something you can say for most TV films of that era. Bonnardot and his collaborators clearly share a close affinity for Casares, complementing the source with a keenly-judged selection of peripheral references — from the Cocteau homage in the opening titles to the (perhaps inevitable) invocation of Robbe-Grillet and Resnais. As Casares inspired Marienbad, so Marienbad inspires Bonnordot: his subjective camera glides through the museum’s corridors, picking out salient details here and there — the bookshelves stocked with Breton and Borges, the walls with Chirico — in a stylish and clever emulation of the novella’s first-person narrative. (It’s almost ten minutes before we see our protagonist’s face.)
Unlike the Italian adaptation (which we’ll get to shortly), Morel ‘67 opts to convey its hero’s inner thoughts through extensive voice-over; a clunky device, perhaps, though since much of its stems directly from Casares, the narration is at least rather beautifully written (and spoken, by Alain Saury). For an actor reduced much of the time to a voice, a prowling POV camera and a single groping hand, Saury isn’t half bad. The viewer is with him every step of the way, sharing his thoughts, his confusion, his hope and despair; and when at last he takes his final, fateful action, its seems completely, heartbreakingly credible. Didier Conti, on the other hand, turns Morel into a dimensionless, pompous blowhard, entirely devoid of nuance. Well, he gets the beard about right. (There would be improvements in this department with Morel’s next incarnation.)
The perfect casting for Faustine, of course, would have been Louise Brooks: the Hollywood star whose unattainable allure first inspired Casares to write his book. Given the character’s dramatic weight, it’s a tough part to cast — and an even harder one to play. Juliette Mills can’t hope to match the luminosity of Brooks, of course, and it would be unfair to judge her performance (or this production) against that yardstick; but given the enormous expectations the story makes of her, she acquits herself remarkably well as an object of obsessive desire. She’s elegant and mysterious when the story requires it, but also rather charming in the small moments when we see her alone, pulling faces at herself in the vanity mirror. Mills artfully conveys a secret sadness inside Faustine, and it’s not hard to imagine falling for such a fetching enigma.
We can attribute at least some of the success of this performance to her director, whose deftness of touch is evident throughout the production. Thanks to Bonnardot, the terrible poignancy of the situation is quite exquisitely rendered: it’s impossible to forget the images of Morel’s party guests, doomed to repeat the same actions, the same arguments, the same foolish gestures for all eternity. The relentless cheerfulness of the jazz records, endlessly repeating their idiotic refrains, seems to mock the guests as they endlessly dance, in rain or sunshine, hardly aware that their souls are being sucked away, leaving them as nothing more than flickering, grimacing shadows: a haunting metaphor for cinema itself.
L’Invenzione di Morel (Italy 1974) / A.k.a. Morel’s Invention
D: Emidio Greco. S: Andrea Barbato, Emidio Greco. Novella: Adolfo Bioy Casares. P: Mario Orfini, Ettore Rosboch. Cast: Anna Karina, Giulio Brogi, John Steiner. Italian dist (DVD): Ripley’s Home Video.
The second screen adaptation of Casares could hardly be more different in tone. Where the French rendition was dark and sombre, the Italian is as bright and mysterious as a Chirico painting. Emidio Greco’s L’Invenzione di Morel (1974) is a strikingly handsome production, benefitting from stunning location filming on Malta and a stark visual beauty that lingers in the mind. (The fractal landscape our hero crosses after first reaching the island is as strange and alien as the Lanzarote of One Million Years B.C. , or the Arizona canyons of Planet of the Apes .) Amedeo Fago’s production design is extraordinary: Morel’s museum is an art deco fortress, planted incongruously on a barren, windswept plain. If both films were to be judged on technical merits alone, Greco’s would — inevitably — emerge as the clear winner. But the Italian adaptation makes several errors of judgement, individually minor but cumulatively fatal, which ultimately makes it the lesser of the two.
That’s not to say Greco (and co-writer Andrea Barbato) don’t get a lot of things right. While narration worked fine for the TV version, it has been sensibly dropped for the widescreen incarnation; in its place, Silvano Ippoliti’s cinematography conjures mystery and menace from the glorious Maltese locations. Where Bonnardot withheld his protagonist’s face from the audience for the first reel or more, Greco allows us to see our hero (Giulio Brogi) — but tells us nothing about him, nor even has him utter a word until half an hour into the film. It’s an excellent start, conveying a wonderfully enigmatic air of existential unease.
Like Bonnardot, Greco alludes only vaguely to the reasons for the castaway’s flight, to which Casares himself devotes only a few paragraphs towards the very end of the book; wisely, each adapter opts to preserve the hero’s Kafkaesque status by keeping the nature of his persecution nebulous.* Much of the subsequent action — the hero’s observation of the recorded phantoms, seeing each scene replayed from slightly different angles — mirrors the TV version quite closely, with some minor variations. Mystifyingly, however, Greco chooses to omit one of the most evocative moments from the novella (and Morel ‘67), where the narrator observes two suns blazing in the sky at different positions. (It’s possible Greco and Barbato felt this would detract from the realism they were after — that there should be some limits imposed on the reproductive reach of Morel’s invention. Italian filmmakers, it should be remembered, are not awfully keen on fantascienza.) This is the first misstep the production makes — but sadly, it won’t be the worst.
In its casting of the three leads, Morel ’74 is only partly successful. Giulio Brogi (also in Bertolucci’s The Spider’s Stratagem , from a story by Borges) is fine as the castaway, though (unlike Alain Saury’s) his is an almost entirely physical performance; he’s not really called upon to do much more than scramble over rocks, scowl and look desperate. As a lovelorn hero, he’s merely adequate. Anna Karina, the Garbo of the Nouvelle Vague, makes a surprisingly lacklustre Faustine; she’s more haughty and distant than beguilingly mysterious, and (dare one say it) may have been rather too old for the part. Though Greco was understandably delighted to nab her for the role, it must be said that her presence here is somewhat underwhelming.
Greco’s real casting coup, however, is John Steiner, who’s absolutely perfect as Morel. His long, thin features and angular frame suggest a sadness and awkwardness at the heart of the character, which goes a long way towards our understanding his motives. Aside from his missing beard, Steiner is an uncannily close physical match with the novella’s Morel: he’s creepy, unwholesome, but at the same time pitiable. His elegant clothes hang off him like a scarecrow’s, as if his hopeless desire for Faustine has literally eaten him away. There’s really no comparison between the wiry, doleful Steiner and the bulky, blustering Didier Conti of Morel ’67: where Steiner inhabits the role, Conti merely acts. Watching Steiner’s Morel, we can almost concur with the novella’s narrator when he writes: “Now I see Morel’s act as something sublime.”
But Morel ’74 goes badly off the rails in its final reel. The climax is disappointingly perfunctory, going through the motions of replicating the novella right until the end — whereupon it pulls a harsh about-face that betrays the original entirely, in favour of a far more hopeless and despairing outcome. It’s a bizarre decision, leaving the viewer feeling empty and cheated — and with the decided impression that the director never really understood the material he was working with.
From the above, it should be clear which of the two films achieves the closest mimesis of the novella. Though it lacks the beautiful locations of the ‘74 production (not to mention the sensitive performance of John Steiner), Morel ’67 is the more intimate and, also, the more faithful of the two — and hence, to aficionados of Casares, is surely the preferred option. Greco’s film, in its obsession with surfaces, forgets that a film must also have a heart; sad to say, for all its formal grandeur, Morel ’74 lacks emotional resonance. Where Bonnardot’s vision is languid, romantic and melancholy, Greco’s is bleak, arid and angry; again, it should be plain which of these is truer to Casares.
A final word on the ending. Each of the films adds something of its own: Bonnordot’s gives the castaway a name (Luis, perhaps another reference to Borges?), while Greco’s goes even further by presuming to reject the romantic thesis of the author himself. We can only guess at their reasons. For a Frenchman, filming Casares around the Summer of Love, to die unloved and unnamed would be horror indeed; while an Italian, filming the same tale in the political 70s, might consider a willing surrender to delusion likewise unthinkable. Perhaps the answer is even simpler. Like the castaway himself, each director felt compelled to insert himself into Morel’s narrative — hoping to add his own gestures and responses to a timeless story that will, no doubt, outlive us all. If filmmakers continue to be drawn to Casares, as the recent Mexican adaptation suggests (La Invención de Morel, 2006, directed by Andrés García Franco), then Morel’s island may soon become a very crowded retreat indeed.
About the DVD transfers:
The French DVD of L’Invention de Morel comes from Ina Éditions, one of a number of releases under the umbrella title Les Inédits Fantastiques: an excellent series of archival TV restorations of classic French fantasy shows. (Also in this collection: a four-part adaptation of The Saragossa Manuscript, titled La Duchesse d’Avila ; a slice of Gaston Leroux pulp-horreur, La Poupée Sanglante ; and two seasons of a Doom Watch-style scientific investigation show, Aux Frontières du Possible .) The film is presented in its original 4:3 ratio, with optional French hard-of-hearing subtitles only.
The Italian DVD of L’Invenzione di Morel (from Ripley’s Home Video) is an almost-ideal presentation, boasting a sparklingly clean 16:9 transfer from a new HD master (supervised by the director, in its 1.85:1 aspect ratio). The audio is mostly clear, but manifests a faint digital susurration during the soundtrack’s quieter passages; still, this is a minor caveat. RHV have thoughtfully included a nicely-designed booklet, containing a 1974 review of the film by Francesco Savio, and a half-hour video interview with Emidio Greco (both in Italian only, of course; however, in a welcome touch, the feature itself has been granted the luxury of optional English or French subtitles). It’s a fine release of a flawed but visually-ravishing film.
* Casares’s asides on Venezuela are, in any case, oddly elliptical. The Gómez he refers to, for instance, has a different forename to the corrupt Gómez who ruled that country until 1935; but in a story about manipulated reality, maybe that’s not so strange after all.