Anyone with ambitions to be a writer, particularly a screenwriter, aspires to the kind of career that Jean-Claude Carrière enjoyed in his lifetime. Covering all genres, numerous countries, high arthouse stuff and populist entertainment, Carrière was a natural fit no matter what he worked on, his talent and sensibilities blending in seamlessly with the directors with whom he collaborated. It would be hard to determine his “touch” when you watch many of his most famous films. It’s rare that reviewers attribute the qualities of the films he has written to anyone but their directors.
How does one find themselves enjoying the same freedom and experience as Jean-Claude Carrière did? From the looks of it, it’s a right time and right place situation, as his background was completely unconnected to show business (his parents were vintners who opened a coffee house in the suburbs of Paris) and his education pointed towards academic study or publishing. He put out his first novel Lézard at the age of 27, then was introduced to filmmaker Jacques Tati, who hired him to write the novelizations of his films. Doing so put Carrière in the way of Pierre Étaix, a clown and aspiring director who was at the time working as Tati’s assistant. The two of them began writing and directing shorts together, winning an Oscar for the short film Happy Anniversary and then co-writing four features that Étaix directed. In 1964, Carrière was hired to adapt Mirbeau’s Diary of a Chambermaid for Luis Buñuel, which became his most famous directorial pairing and a collaboration that lasted until the end of the great director’s career.
The Criterion Channel’s tribute to this great writer, who died this past February at the age of 89, is clearly comprised of titles already in their vault, focusing on the Étaix and Buñuel films, adding the Volker Schlöndorff adaptations and a classic Louis Malle charmer to hint at the variety of styles and genres to which he brought strength and intelligence. A more well-rounded tribute would have included his Oscar-nominated work on The Unbearable Lightness of Being, his projects with Milos Forman (Valmont, Goya’s Ghosts), more of Malle (Viva Maria, The Thief of Paris) and the late life arthouse classic Birth. Plus, why not include his acting appearances in movies he didn’t write, like his welcome cameo in Kiarostami’s Certified Copy or Carlos Saura’s Buñuel and King Solomon’s Table.
In 2015, Jean-Claude Carrière was one of the few French screenwriters to be awarded an honorary Oscar, a tribute to an artist “whose elegantly crafted screenplays elevate the art of screenwriting to the level of literature.”
Reviews are by Bil Antoniou except where noted. Many thanks to Marko Djurdjic for contributing to this week’s column.
THE JEAN-CLAUDE CARRIÈRE MUST-SEES
Happy Anniversary (Pierre Étaix, Jean-Claude Carrière, 1961)
A brilliant satire on city living, this short is the best of his work with Pierre Étaix, who plays a married man trying to make his way home to celebrate his anniversary with his wife. While she languishes from boredom and hunger, trying hard not to dig into the gorgeous spread she has prepared, he has to fight a surrealist level of inconveniences in Paris traffic trying to get home, finding it very difficult to get a proper bouquet of flowers that don’t soon get trounced or chopped up. There are a surprising number of laughs packed into a 13 minute running time here. Winner of the live action short Oscar in 1963.
Diary of a Chambermaid (Luis Buñuel, 1964)
One of Jean-Claude Carrière’s best collaborations with Buñuel, in which Jeanne Moreau bewitchingly plays Octave Mirbeau’s domestic in a mansion inhabited by a cracked family including (the Buñuel classic) a foot fetishist grandfather. Unflappable but always engaged, Moreau becomes an amateur sleuth after a little girl is raped and murdered in the nearby woods. Her investigation has some very interesting (deeply cynical) results. The film maintains a powerful perfume of mystery and amorality almost a half century after being made and still throws me for a loop every time.
Yoyo (Pierre Étaix, 1965)
Étaix’s favourite of his own films and his most beloved by fans, this one is a marvelous trip through his surreal imagination. Beginning as a silent film in which he is a lonely millionaire, he loses his fortune in the 1929 stock market crash and joins the circus, raising a boy who grows up to be a famous performer (also played by Étaix). He uses his wealth to buy back his father’s château and restore it to its former glory, but threatens to lose touch with his artistic spirit. Étaix is all about the long con, there’s no quick physical jabs or brittle dialogue exchanges, just a smooth line of him navigating his way through a weird and wonderful world.
Belle de Jour (Luis Buñuel, 1967)
The iconic Catherine Deneuve role in Luis Buñuel’s finest indictment of bourgeois hypocrisy. She plays a well-to-do housewife with a gorgeous husband and fancy home life who indulges in her dark side by working at a brothel during the day before her husband gets home, eventually striking up an affair with one of her bad boy clients. Buñuel, as always maintaining a god-like distance from his characters’ fates, allows his heroine’s downfall to occur with delightful Catholic glee, but he doesn’t judge the path that took her there. Her fantasies might be ridiculous but the vulnerability they reveal is as sympathetic as the chilly exterior she presents to others.
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel, 1972)
Marko Djurdjic: Another successful Buñuel collaboration—tells the story of an upper-class sextet who just can’t seem to sit down and partake in—let alone finish—a meal. Buñuel and Carrière depict their materialistic subjects as vapid, self-important clowns whose dreams (and dreams within dreams) personify their anxieties and social fragility. Playing fast and loose with any definition of “morality,” the sextet delight in belittling those they see as uneducated, from lower statures, or with little to offer besides their labour. Buñuel’s images are bold and colourful, happily exposing the skewed ethics of these “high class” characters by constantly thwarting their attempts at dinner parties, the highpoint of bourgeoise decadence. Through its anecdotal structure, the film playfully subverts traditional “plotspectations,” as Buñuel and Carrière revel in tricking both the characters (who think they should be privileged because they are rich) and the audience (who think the same because they are real) into thinking they have any control over the surreal narrative unfolding onscreen.
The Tin Drum (Volker Schlondorff, 1979)
Jean-Claude Carrière worked with Volker Schlöndorff a handful of times, their most successful collaboration this adaptation of Gunter Grass’s novel that won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Oskar is born to a German family in 1924 and, at the mere age of three, decides that grown-up life is too ridiculous for words. He wills himself to remain a toddler and expresses his frustration through a glass-breaking scream and by pounding on his beloved titular toy. His exploration of the world of adults as a place of pure madness is a heavy experience but one kept in motion by terrific performances and poetic images.
May Fools (Louis Malle, 1990)
This entry is one of Louis Malle’s most enjoyable films made from a brilliant script he co-wrote with Carrière. The allegory is balanced beautifully with great drama as the events of May ’68 tear up the faraway city of Paris, while in the countryside Michel Piccoli lives an idealized rustic existence with his aging mother. When she unexpectedly dies, it brings a heap of relatives and friends to the house and they chew over their opinions about politics, authority and justice while having to deal with the fact that a local strike is preventing their matriarch’s funeral from happening. Miou-Miou is terrific as his straight-edged, bourgeoise daughter and a César-winning Dominique Blanc steals the show as his bitter niece. Beautifully shot, this is marvelous stuff.
Le Grand Amour (Pierre Étaix, 1969)
Étaix makes his first colour feature with his usual flair for understated but brilliant comedy, concocting a perfect script with Carrière that investigates the human desires bubbling beneath the seeming respectability of bourgeois marriage. After marrying the right girl from the right family, Étaix takes over his father-in-law’s factory and, ten years into his marriage, is still quite satisfied with his life. When a beautiful young woman takes over as his new secretary, however, he becomes immediately obsessed with running away from his perfect setup and being young again with this elegant new possibility. Étaix goes in for much more conventionally structured scenes of dialogue than he has in the past, but he does not compromise the sense of perfectly staged pantomime on display in the film’s cleverest scenes. If for nothing else, watch it for the dream sequence in which he goes for a ride through the countryside on his bed.
The Suitor (Pierre Étaix, 1963)
Before he’d be famous for intellectually stimulating arthouse European classics, Carrière collaborated with Pierre Étaix on a number of Buster Keaton-inspired classic satires of modern-day life. Not as gimmicky as Tati or as frenetic as Keaton’s, Étaix’s first feature stars him as an astrology buff who decides to follow his parents’ advice and find a woman to marry. He pursues a neighbour after learning how to woo women by watching men on the street, but he abandons her in favour of an obsession with a famous singer he sees on TV. The final act that takes place at the backstage of a variety show is a marvel.
As Long As You’ve Got Your Health (Pierre Étaix, 1966)
After two features that drew his elaborate set pieces together by the string of a connecting plotline, Étaix and Carrière create four separate, unrelated pieces and presented an evening of droll pantomimes. The first, shot beautifully in colour, is about a man who can’t sleep and stays up late reading a vampire novel. the second is a very funny piece about the difficulties of trying to go to the cinema (and a sharp comment on the advertising that one deals with once getting there). The third is a beautiful observation of the inconveniences of city life, and the fourth is about city dwellers trying to have a picnic in the country and bringing nothing but destruction with them. There are lots of laughs in this charmer.
That Obscure Object of Desire (Luis Buñuel, 1977)
After Maria Schneider quit the project, Buñuel couldn’t decide who to cast in his adaptation of La femme et le pantin (previously filmed by Josef von Sternberg with Marlene Dietrich as The Devil Is a Woman), which would end up being his final completed work. He splits the character between her angelic, manipulative nature (played by Carol Bouquet) and her lusty, openly sensual side (Angela Molina) as they win over Fernando Rey and slowly bring him to his ruin. A cautionary tale of the dangerous lure of feminine wiles is turned by Buñuel into a sly and funny indictment of fragile masculinity.
Every Man for Himself (Jean-Luc Godard, 1980)
Godard called his return to commercial filmmaking, after a decade of ragged experimentation. His “second first film” has gorgeously shot images populated by three major stars of French cinema. Carrière and Anne-Marie Mieville contribute a script that has been thoroughly Godarded–narrative logic and context are thrown out the window–but there’s enough interaction between recognizable characters to draw you into his examination of relationships versus labour that begins with a television director named Godard (Jacques Dutronc) and his girlfriend (a radiant Nathalie Baye). Forty minutes in, top-billed Isabelle Huppert shows up as a sex worker with whom Dutronc crosses paths before going off on her own potentially degrading (but strangely funny) adventures. It won’t satisfy anyone hoping for melodrama, but those who tire of the great artist’s usual navel-gazing will be happy to see that he focuses on human beings and their psychological inner life instead of boiling things down to endless examinations of the meaning of words or advertising slogans. The film is also known as Slow Motion.
Swann in Love (Volker Schlöndorff, 1984)
Jean-Claude Carrière and Volker Schlöndorff create the first big-screen adaptation of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. While their take on it isn’t the plush dreaminess that Raoul Ruiz would imagine more than a decade later, what they come up with is stunning to look at and features more than a few sexy moments. Jeremy Irons plays the ramrod-straight aristocrat who becomes obsessed with a lady of the night (Ornella Muti), at first trying to let it go for the sake of his position but then giving in to his jealous rages and deciding not to mind the fact that he has become the laughing stock of his set. The heat between the leads and a supporting cast that includes gemlike appearances by Marie-Christine Barrault and Fanny Ardant are great reasons to watch it.
FOR JEAN-CLAUDE CARRIÈRE FANS ONLY
Rupture (Pierre Étaix, Jean-Claude Carrière, 1961)
Jean-Claude Carrière and legendary trickster filmmaker Pierre Étaix collaborated as directors and writers on this poignant short. Étaix comes home to find a Dear John letter from his beloved and sets out to write a response, but every attempt to put together a writing utensil fails. The complications eventually reach epically disastrous proportions. Sharp, clever and very funny.
The Phantom of Liberty (Luis Buñuel, 1974)
More surreal fun from Buñuel, although this time it’s a series of disjointed sequences in the great maestro’s penultimate film. Monks play poker with religious coins, a dinner table has toilets seated around it instead of chairs, and children disappoint their parents carrying by “dirty” postcards of famous landmarks given to them by a pervert in the park. Shot and performed to perfection and a rare chance to see Monica Vitti doing comedy on film, though a shallow experience compared to either Buñuel or Carrière’s best works.
Danton (Andrzej Wajda, 1983)
It’s common practice that the spirit of revolution, once it succeeds, sees revolutionaries turn on themselves and director Andrzej Wajda dares to move past the glories of French revolutionary rhetoric and examines the period of Robespierre’s “terrors”. Gerard Depardieu gives one of his best performances as an anti-monarchist who goes head to head with the current regime in his disagreement with its rigid policies and soon finds himself as likely to head to the guillotine as the royals he once cheered to their deaths. Carrière’s script is complicated and intelligent but it isn’t juicy, while Wajda’s allegory (which you could apply to today’s unforgiving style of internet debates) is very clearly meaning to apply French history to the Polish present (even casting badly dubbed Polish actors as the conservatives). The lack of subtlety is rather irritating.
The Ogre (Volker Schlöndorff, 1996)
Carrière and Schlöndorff reunite for another tale of World War II as a picture of the civilized world gone mad. John Malkovich is the lovable simpleton who is accused by a vengeful little girl of molesting her, and instead of languishing in prison, he is sent into battle instead. After time in a prisoner of war camp, he is sent to the château of a high-ranking count where he is put in charge of children being trained as Hitler youth, not realizing that his genuine love for these young people is being perverted into something horrible. It doesn’t sustain its strength as long as The Tin Drum does, getting a bit too messy by the end, but it features great cinematography and a memorable performance in the lead role.