Thursday, February 25, 2021

Lessons from a translator of dreams: Deceased Artiste Jean-Claude Carrière

The screenwriters who get the most attention are those who end up directing their own scripts. Those who remain screenwriters are subjects of curiosity: why did he never become a director? Was she too scared to make that jump? Jean-Claude Carrière seemed scared of nothing. He did direct a few films (four shorts), but he felt comfortable staying in the screenwriting role for his six-decade career in film.

And he was a superb screenwriter. He may have also acted, written plays and telefilms, authored many novels and works of non-fiction (including a collaboration with Umberto Eco about their bibliophilia; a print “dialogue” with Eco and Stephen Jay Gould on science, spirituality, and the apocalypse; and “The Power of Buddhism” with the Dalai Lama!), but he was first and foremost one of the greatest European screenwriters of the last half of the 20th century. He was prolific, with well over 100 scripting credits, but he created a consistent enough universe in his screenplays that, when he didn’t work with a strong director (or when he worked with a strong director operating at half-strength), he was indeed the true “auteur” of the film.

Dapper till the end.
One consistent element of his work was a “dreamy” quality that extended from his work with filmmakers whose tales were rooted in dream imagery to his more “normal,” strictly linear screenplays — what is Return of Martin Guerre (1982) if not an enlightened guessing game as to whether the protagonist is a liar or not? Thus, a more “mainstream” film like The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) and a weird allegorical tale like Ferreri’s 1972 film Liza (where Catherine Deneuve becomes Marcello’s “dog” — Ferreri never tired of allegories about sexism) share a common tone.

The most incredible thing about Carrière’s screenplays is that, while returning to common themes like the “dreamy” tone, he worked in several different countries, writing in different languages, and playing “to” the cultures in which the works were set. Thus, he collaborated with French, Spanish, English, American, Italian, German, Chinese, Japanese, and Polish directors.

And, if that wasn’t a strong enough testimonial to his talent, the laundry list of directors he worked with does comprise a fascinating cross-section of cinema in the last six decades. Thus, the list, spotlighting the “name” filmmakers he wrote scripts for — leaving out directors like Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe, whom Carrière collaborated with a number of times but whose work has been little seen in the U.S. Here are just some of the people for whom Carrière supplied and “translated” dreams:

Etaix, Buñuel, Franco, Deray, Forman, Ferreri, Corneau, Brialy, Chereau, de Broca, Schlondorff, Peter Brook, Godard, Vigne (who helmed Martin Guerre), Saura, Wajda, Oshima, Philip Kaufman, Marker, Rappeneau, Hector Babenco, Wayne Wang, Isabella Rossellini, Julian Schnabel, and Philippe Garrel

Don Luis and Jean-Claude

Carrière’s output was such that he worked with different generations of certain filmmaking families, writing screenplays for both Philippe and Louis Garrel, as well as Don Luis Buñuel and his son Juan-Luis and his ex-daughter-in-law Joyce. At this moment in time, a few weeks after he died at 89, three more films scripted by Carrière are in post-production (including one directed by Garrel fils).

The body of work is thus so big that it would require months, if not years, to just find copies of all the films he scripted, never mind writing about them all. Thus, we are left to review and discuss certain particularly significant and odd works by Carrière that can be easily accessed on discs or Internet streams, leaving aside dozens and dozens of other films that are unknown commodities in the U.S.


To further marvel at Carrière’s productivity, one need only read this blog entry about the paperback novels he wrote before he met Tati and Etaix, a series of adventures of the Frankenstein monster(!). 

Carrière’s first screenplay was a collaboration with the great French comedian/clown/filmmaker Pierre Etaix. “Rupture” (1961) was also directed by J-CC and is a delightful gag-ridden comedy short.


Carrière also directed “Happy Anniversary” (1962), Etaix’s second comedy short, and the film won an Oscar as Best Short Subject. It is yet another perfect example of how excellent gag-based comedy is indeed universal.


The breakthrough for Carrière was his first collaboration with Buñuel, Diary of a Chambermaid (1964). That is a fine film, but the next film the two made together, Belle de Jour (1967) is the first masterpiece that Carrière coscripted. Here’s the scene that introduces the always-game Pierre Clementi as a creepy client for Deneuve.


Tying this blog post in to the Funhouse TV show (info on how to watch is here), I will note that, as of this writing, I’m doing a two-part episode discussing, and showing scenes from, a rarer Carrière title that is barely known to Americans. The Wedding Ring (L’Alliance, 1970) is a brilliantly scripted film that defies categorization, as it is by turns an absurdist comedy, a character study, a thriller, a mystery, and ultimately an apocalyptic fantasy. 

The film is available online without English subs, but of more interest to those who want supplemental info is a short segment on the INA website that interviews Carrière (who scripted from his novel and stars), Anna Karina (who costars as his wife — the couple at different points believe their spouse is going to kill them), and director Christian de Chalonge. It can only be found on the INA site here, with no English subs. 

One of his most beloved “early” films (this after he’d been scripting for more than a decade) is The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), which was the second of a trio of Buñuel films co-scripted with Carrière that were fashioned as “journeys” through a sort of dreamscape that happened to look somewhat like the real world.


Both Buñuel and Carrière were noted atheists, and their films together were filled with glorious bits of blasphemy.


Carrière scripted one film for Funhouse fave (and interview subject) Marco Ferreri. Liza (1972, known as Love to Eternity on IMDB, where so much confusion is caused by altogether-briefly-used English titles for foreign films) is yet another of Ferreri’s allegories about sexism and feminism.

In the film, Marcello Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve end up on a distant island. The film’s most memorable scenes occur after Deneuve kills Mastroianni’s dog by mistake and takes its place, wearing a collar and fetching sticks. (This clip is a musical montage created by a fan.)


Another well-remembered vignette in a Buñuel-Carrière film is this lovely scene from The Phantom of Liberty (1974), set in an unusual haute-bourgeois household.


Carrière scripted three of the films that enshrined Gerard Depardieu as a “crossover star” in America: The Return of Martin Guerre, Danton, and Cyrano de Bergerac. All three feature excellent lead performances by Depardieu, but of the three, Danton (Andrzej Wajda, 1983) is the most intense and the most brilliant.


No artist is without his or her failures, and Carrière was a great artist. There are many of his films I haven’t seen, but I will vote for what has got to be one of the most disappointing, especially considering the talent involved. Max, Mon Amour (1986) finds Charlotte Rampling as a diplomat’s wife who falls in love with a simian (which is really just a guy in a monkey suit). 

The film was scripted by Carrière for the great Nagisa Oshima and has an excellent cast. It’s subversive for about the first half, and then it’s just very dippy — it feels like a live-action Disney movie that happens to contain an obsessive relationship between a woman and a monkey.


Most arthouse fans would consider Lena Olin’s turn in The Unbelievable Lightness of Being (1988) as one of the sexiest characters to have been scripted by Carrière (based, of course, on the novel by Milan Kundera). However, there is another extremely sexy female character, the Marquise de Merteuil, in Milos Forman’s Valmont (1989). 

The Forman film was forgotten in the shuffle, since it followed the 1988 adaptation of the same tale, Dangerous Liaisons, but Valmont is the superior version of the novel by Choderlos de Laclos. (And Annette Benning, in the scene found in the second half of this clip, is as sexy as Olin was, in her own way.)



In the end, though, there is the word. Carrière was a writer who never yearned to become a director — although three of the four shorts he directed are excellent. He was content with the writer’s role and thus built up a veritable library’s worth of fairy tales, allegories, stark dramas, off-kilter comedies, period pieces with memorable characters, extended riffs on a theme, and most other categories you’d care to mention.

He also was an engaging panel member, lecturer, and interview subject. The two best video interviews with him online show how he could speak with authority on a number of topics, while also imparting valuable points on screenplay technique. (He cofounded and taught at La Fémis, the French film school.)

Starring in The Wedding Ring (1970)

The first “capsule” portrait, which barely scratches the surface of his career, is an episode of “The South Bank Show.” Here he mostly speaks about Buñuel and Peter Brook (with a smattering of Malle and Rappeneau), but he offers a wonderful, playful take on screenwriting, talking about the way that he and Buñuel would exercise the “muscle of imagination.” While writing a script, they would go their own way and each come up with a full story to tell the other over drinks before dinner.

He also urges screenwriters to be fearless: “Imagination is always thoughtless, innocent. That there is no crime in thinking about a crime…. There is a real obligation for a screenwriter, or any writer in the world, every day, as Buñuel would say, to kill his father, to rape his mother, to betray his country. He has to do it in his mind — if not, he deprives himself, or herself, of a huge territory of imagination.”


The best Internet legacy left by Carrière is a long interview with him posted by the Web of Stories YouTube channel. It’s an absolutely great interview with/monologue by Carrière, where he covers a broad range of topics, and even though he, again, only scratches the surface of his movie work — primarily discussing Tati, Etaix, Buñuel, Malle, Wajda, and Brook — he also offers some incredibly good advice to aspiring screenwriters and writers in general about trying to capture a character’s perspective. 

Buñuel and his admirers, with J-CC.

The interview is a long one that is broken into 80 (yes, you read that right) segments. Below are the twelve “best” segments (the whole thing is really worth watching) that show the breadth of Carrière’s experience and knowledge (and I haven’t included any segments from the earlier part of the talk, where he talks about his childhood, or the Brook section where he also discusses his experiences in India). As a result of the chopping-up of the interview, the best way to see the entire interview is this playlist of the whole thing, but I do indeed recommend these dozen segments, which give a flavor for the man’s brilliance. (NOTE: Turn on the Closed Captions for English subtitles.)

He discusses Tati, who hired him to write the movie tie-in novels (yes, there were Tati tie-in novels!) for Mr. Hulot's Holiday and My Uncle. Apparently M. Hulot respected the screenwriter's gift for observation:


He was always the go-to interview for discussions of Buñuel’s creative process:


An experiment he and Don Luis carried on, in which they pretended an haute bourgeois couple was watching their script conferences. They used these imaginary characters, “Henri and Georgette,” to comment on their own ideas:


Carrière’s discussions of faith, spirituality, atheism (he, like Buñuel, was a glorious non-believer), and the human mind are just wonderful. Here, “Belief Is Stronger Than Knowledge”:


He touches on many things in the interview and every so often gets around to the Big Questions, like “What Is Knowledge?”:


“Grasping the Absolute”:


He taught screenwriting at La Fémis and clearly was a wonderful teacher. His discussions of writing (and particularly matters of perspective) make for gloriously “pain-free” learning:


The short segment “How to Write a Screenplay” is one of the most popular bits of this interview, and deservedly so. He conveys a lot in a few minutes:


His reflections on the character of our hero, Uncle Jean, relating to the time that Godard was using La Femis facilities to edit his work:


Carrière was a game-player when it came to the mind. He liked discussing in interviews (and presumably in his classes and lectures) the little games he had hit upon to keep his brain sharp:


What sounds like a grim exercise was actually an aide-memoire for both Buñuel and Carrière:


And a final word about being receptive to ideas and endeavors: