The Dauntingly Inventive Jean-Claude Carrière

The Daily — Feb 10, 2021
Jean-Claude Carrière in Christian de Chalonge’s The Wedding Ring (1971)

Jean-Claude Carrière, the astonishingly inventive and prolific writer who passed away on Monday at the age of eighty-nine, liked to tell the story of his first encounter with Luis Buñuel. It was in Cannes, and Buñuel, already in his early sixties, was looking for a young collaborator for his next project, an adaptation of Octave Mirbeau’s 1900 novel, Diary of a Chambermaid. His producer had tipped him off to a promising talent who, in his early thirties, had already written a novel (Lizard, 1957), worked with Jacques Tati, and made an Oscar-winning short film with Pierre Etaix, Happy Anniversary (1962).

Buñuel approached Carrière and asked, seemingly out of the blue, “Do you drink wine?” Carrière immediately sensed that this was a make-or-break question. Not only did he drink wine, Carrière was happy to report, he made it. He’d been raised by a family of vintners in southwestern France. That first lunch together went so well that Carrière skipped out on the festival and headed straight home to bone up on his Mirbeau. Within a few weeks, he and Buñuel had launched a collaboration that would produce six features as well as Buñuel’s 1982 autobiography, My Last Sigh, which, as Peter Schjeldahl wrote in the New York Times, “may be quite simply the loveliest testament ever left by a film director.”

Carrière had been captivated by movies since he was a child, and as a teenaged student in Lyon, he ran a film club. “I was very stirred up at the age of twenty by Los Olvidados and Él,” he told Jason Weis in the International Herald Tribune in 1983, referring to two of Buñuel’s films from the early 1950s. “Buñuel is clearly a greater man than Picasso,” he added. “You have to go all the way back to Goya to find a figure of that importance. That is, Picasso is a great painter, but he’s only a painter. You can write books, make films, without ever thinking of Picasso. But whatever you do, in the Spanish world, whether you’re a novelist, painter, filmmaker of course, man of theater—at a given moment you’re going to meet up with Buñuel.”

At the outset, Carrière’s admiration for the director got in the way of their work together. Buñuel insisted that his writing partner stop approving of every idea he floated. He had to learn how to say no. Buñuel introduced a working method he’d picked up from the Surrealists, the veto. One partner proposes an idea and the other has mere seconds to deliver a thumbs up or down. “Once somebody says ‘No,’ the other one had no right to discuss,” Carrière explained to Colleen Kelsey in Interview in 2015. “He was looking for the first instinctive reaction of his partner without any reasoning. When you start reasoning, you can justify anything. But when you give a very immediate and instinctive reaction, you cannot . . . It’s a very beautiful way of working; one trusts the other.”

In Belle de jour (1967), their second collaboration, Catherine Deneuve plays Séverine, a housewife who lives out her sexual fantasies at an upscale bordello. For Melissa Anderson, this is Buñuel’s “most intricate character study—but of a protagonist who resists definition; the heroine, frequently trussed up and mussed up, retains an odd, opaque dignity in her debauchery.” Deneuve’s Séverine is an “exquisite blank slate lost in her own masochistic fantasies and onto whom all sorts of perversions could be projected.” Buñuel and Carrière’s films are never defined by character because “psychology is enemy number one,” as Carrière told Weis. “Because it paralyzes and limits.”

In 2019, on the occasion of a Carrière retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, Lawrence Garcia surveyed the filmography for the Notebook. Regarding his work with Buñuel, Garcia found that The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), in which the dinner plans of six middle-class friends are interrupted over and again, is “the ideal instance of the pair’s collaborations, while The Phantom of Liberty [1974], though its stock has risen since its original run, tests the desirability of their methods in pure, uncut form.” With That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), Carrière and Buñuel “craft a fine career-capper, a film with echoes in works as distinct as Hong Sangsoo’s Yourself and Yours (2016) and Abbas Kiarostami’s Certified Copy (2010), the latter of which sees Carrière himself dispensing some fatherly advice to William Shimell’s academic.”

Talking to Fernando F. Croce at Slant in 2006, Carrière said that his work with Miloš Forman on Taking Off (1971), Valmont (1989), and Goya’s Ghosts (2006) had something of the “same atmosphere” as his most famous partnership. “We close ourselves in his house in Connecticut, and we improvise, act together, one trying to seduce the other with ideas,” he said. “I never, ever try to defend my ego. The screenwriter has to know that, whatever he has—talent, persistence, professional vision—he’s doing work for somebody else, the director. He needs humility, to learn to be invisible.”

Carrière would become a go-to screenwriter for literary adaptations—The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), based on Milan Kundera’s novel and cowritten with director Philip Kaufman, would be a prominent example—but as he often pointed out, he got his first break in the movie business doing just the opposite. In his late twenties, he won a contest, the prize being an assignment to write the novelizations of two films by Jacques Tati, Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953) and Mon oncle (1958). Carrière and Tati’s assistant, Pierre Etaix, hit it off, and besides Happy Anniversary, they made another short film together, Rupture (1961), and cowrote Etaix’s relatively recently revived classic comedies The Suitor (1962), Yoyo (1965), As Long as You’ve Got Your Health (1966), and Le grand amour (1969).

The range of Carrière’s collaborations over nearly six decades is daunting: Jesús Franco (The Diabolical Dr. Z), Louis Malle (Viva Maria!, The Thief of Paris, May Fools), Jacques Deray (La piscine, Borsalino, The Outside Man, Le gang), Christian de Chalonge (The Wedding Ring, in which Carrière stars alongside Anna Karina), Marco Ferreri (Love to Eternity), Patrice Chéreau (The Flesh of the Orchid), Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum, Circle of Deceit, Swann in Love, The Ogre), Jean-Luc Godard (Every Man for Himself, Passion), Daniel Vigne (The Return of Martin Guerre), Andrzej Wajda (Danton, The Possessed), Nagisa Oshima (Max mon amour), Jean-Paul Rappeneau (Cyrano de Bergerac), Héctor Babenco (At Play in the Fields of the Lord), Wayne Wang (Chinese Box), and Philippe Garrel (In the Shadow of Women, Lover for a Day, The Salt of Tears).

All the while, Carrière carried on writing novels and working in the theater, and he considered his friendship and professional relationship with the legendary Peter Brook as vital as the one he had with Buñuel. Even more than their collaborations on theatrical productions of Shakespeare and Chekhov, their mounting of The Mahabharata, a nine-hour play based on the Sanskrit epic, in a quarry outside Avignon was a landmark achievement.

Another close friend was the painter Julian Schnabel, with whom Carrière worked on At Eternity's Gate (2018), starring Willem Dafoe as Vincent Van Gogh. Schnabel “lives in my place in Paris, I live in his place in New York,” Carrière told Colleen Kelsey before turning reflective. “When I think about what was my life—I was born in a very small and poor family. All the dreams of my childhood have been fulfilled, whether I was dreaming of traveling or dreaming of writing stories, I did it.”

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