"The dreams were a joke on Buñuel's part": we talk seminal films with Jean-Claude Carriere...
Given the role he has played in European cinema over the last 50 years, Jean-Claude Carrière requires more of an introduction than he should. This may be because – in line with Gustave Flaubert’s famous diction on the role of the author (‘like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere’) – his occupation as screenwriter is essentially invisible.
Though also a novelist, playwright, illustrator and actor, Carrière is best known for his film scripts. He learnt the ropes under French slapstick legend Jacques Tati, before working with some of Europe’s best known directors, including Louis Malle, Michael Haneke and, most famously, Luis Buñuel during the surrealist auteur’s French period.
This July sees a Carrière BFI retrospective, culminating in a screening of his most famous Buñuel collaboration, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, in cinemas from 29 June. When I meet Carrière to discuss his art and working with legends of European cinema, he is visibly thrilled with the film’s re-release, and the retrospective, which includes many of the films he worked on with Buñuel.
Can you tell us about how your working relationship with Luis Buñuel came about?
After I made some short films with [Jacques Tati’s former assistant] Pierre Étaix, Buñuel was looking for a young French screenwriter for a film based on a French novel, The Diary of a Chambermaid. I met him for lunch in Cannes and we talked for two hours – that’s all. A week later his producer called me and said ‘You are leaving tomorrow for Spain’. What can you do? You’re not going to say no! People always ask if I’m busy, and yes, I’m very busy but if Fellini calls tomorrow morning (it’s too late for that I know) am I going to tell him I’m not free? I went one day to Rome just to have lunch with Michelangelo Antoniono, and came back in the afternoon.
We’re here to talk about the re-release of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. 40 years on, how do you look back on that film now?
I’m very happy that the film is still on. For me personally the film has been a huge success. I like it very much, because I know how difficult it was to write. It was probably the longest work Buñuel and I did together. Two years, five different versions, before we found the right balance between banality and the extravagant. There is a certain path to follow which is quite narrow and that’s why it took so long. For instance, if you say they are going to have one of their dinner parties and a rhinoceros comes down the stairs you’d have to say ‘no, too extravagant’.
Dreams play a large part in the film.
Yes, but the idea of the dreams, which are so important, only came out on the third version. There’s a scene that I like very much where the dinner party turns into the theatre and the guests are revealed as being on a stage – that was impossible as a reality but entirely plausible in a dream. The other thing about the dreams is that it was a joke on Buñuel’s part, because he was known for using dreams. Once in Mexico during his Mexican period in the 60s a producer told him that a film he was working on was too short and he said ‘no problem, we’ll add a dream!’ (laughs). It’s self-irony – it was what he found himself known for.
You came from a literary background. Can you talk about your beginnings as a screenwriter and your work with Jacques Tati?
I was born to a house where there was not one book or picture – I’m the son of poor peasants from the south – and I spent the rest of my life in books and images! That’s the paradox of my life. I wrote a novel when I was a student, published when I was 25, and my publisher had a contract with Jacques Tati to publish two books based on his films, Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot and Mon Oncle. The publisher organised a contest between four writers to write a chapter as if it was from the film, and Tati chose mine.
One day I knocked on the door of a film company on the Champs-Élysées and was received by Tati, already over 50 – grey hair, very famous. He said ‘I’ve read what you wrote’, though later I found out that it wasn’t true – he didn’t read anything! Pierre Étaix, his assistant, had, and told him ‘this is the one’. Tati couldn’t have cared less about the books.
What was the transition between writing a literary text and writing for the screen like?
The language is totally different. When I met with Tati, he asked me what I knew about the cinema, and I said ‘Tati, I go to the cinema twice a week I’ve seen all your films four times…’ but he stopped me and said ‘no, that’s not what I mean: what do you know about how to make a film?’ Well I knew nothing – I’d never been in a studio or auditorium.
He called his editing lady Suzanne and said ‘take this young man and show him what cinema is’ – a key phrase in my life. For eight days she explained how every scene in Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot had been shot, and why it was slightly different from the script.
Early in your career you tried your hand at directing. Rupture (1961) shows the influence Tati had on you. Was pursuing a directorial career something you ever considered?
Yes. I began to make films with Pierre Étaix. Just three of us worked on Rupture: Étaix, the cameraman and me – we had no money at all! Étaix and I were co-directors for Rupture and [the Oscar-winning] Heureux Anniversaire, but later, when I was beginning to work with Luis Buñuel, I realised maybe I had better stay a writer. The moment you become a film director you can’t do anything else – you can’t be a novelist, or a playwright.
When you involve yourself in making a film as a director, that’s at least three years of your life, sometimes four, five, six… a long time. I’m not the kind of character who can obstinately work on one project. You have to wake up every morning totally convinced you’re working on the best possible film at that moment because if you drop the idea for even a week, nobody’s going to pick it up. My friend and collaborator (on Cyrano de Bergerac) Jean-Paul Rappeneau was a screenwriter and became a director. He has been working on a film for seven years – and it’s collapsed. Seven years. Imagine what he could have done!
Mine is the generation of the New Wave – I’m one year younger than Godard. We had, at least in France, many good directors. Two weeks ago I met Ettore Scola, an Italian director and friend and said to him ‘I don’t understand why everyone still comes to work with me at my age of 80’ and he said ‘It’s very simple – you’re the last screenwriter left. All the others have become directors.’
Cyrano De Bergerac (1990)
You’ve collaborated with many great European directors. What’s the key to a successful relationship between screenwriter and director?
Working as closely together as possible. There’s a French expression that goes ‘we have to work on the same film’, and sometimes you can work together closely with somebody for a few days and suddenly you realise you’re not working on the same film; that you have a different film in mind. We have constantly to check that we are on the same track, even sometimes physically. For example your right is my left; we are in two different spaces and we have to reach a third space, which is going to be the space of the film. Almost every night with Buñuel I would draw a sketch of one of the scenes that we had written that day, and the next day, without showing him the sketch, I would say ‘Buñuel, in the scene with the paratroopers, on which side is the entrance door?’ And if he says ‘the left’ and it is on the left, we are on the same page. If not we have to write again.
The other way is to act together, to improvise all the scenes, to find the right rhythms. When I watch the films we worked on together today, I sometimes see Buñuel acting in front of me.
You’ve adapted many classic novels for the screen, including work by Proust, Günter Grass’ The Tin Drum and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. How would you typically approach adapting a novel for the screen?
The problem is always the same – how to make a film. You have to forget about the language of the novel and see if there is a film in the book. A film is a series of scenes with actors. To take the example of The Tin Drum, in the novel there is no dialogue – everything is indirect: ‘he says this’, ‘he says that’, so the first thing to do is to see if there is the possibility of scenes.
We were twice offered, with Buñuel, to film Under The Volcano by Malcolm Lowry, but it was impossible. I like the book very much but we couldn’t see a film in it. In The Tin Drum we did. You must not rely on the literary writing itself, because that we are going to get rid of; instead find another language, that of the film.
How does it feel to be honored by this retrospective?
(Laughs) It’s not unpleasant! It’s not a question of pride but I’m mostly thinking of Buñuel, of how happy he would be to see that his work hasn’t vanished, and that new generations are still interested. That’s all an artist can hope for. It’s fantastic that 40 years later (and 50 years later for Pierre Étaix), people who weren’t born at the time can enjoy these films.
Are there any contemporary directors with whom you’d like to work?
Of course, a lot. I’m working at the moment with Jean-Francois Richet who made Mesrine and I enjoy very much working with him. Fellini! (laughs).
The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is back in cinemas 29th June, and on DVD/Blu-ray on July 16th. The film plays at the BFI Southbank as part of their Jean-Claude Carrière season.
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