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Surviving Desire: The Films of Jean-Claude Carrière

A Museum of Modern Art retrospective puts the spotlight on the influential screenwriter who has worked with Tati, Buñuel, and Godard.
Luis Buñuel (left) and Jean-Claude Carrière (right).
“The screenplay is not the last stage of a literary journey. It is the first stage of a film.”
—Jean-Claude Carrière, The Secret Language of Film
The screenwriting career of Jean-Claude Carrière begins with a gag. Or, it at least seems like a gag that one of the most prolific and distinguished of French screenwriters should have gotten his start by doing the very opposite of what he became known for—that is, by writing novelizations of two films. Having just published his first novel Lizard in 1957, the 25-year-old Carrière was approached by his publisher Robert Laffont to enter a curious writing contest. The prize? A commission to turn Jacques Tati’s Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday (1953) and Mon Oncle (1958)—the latter still in production at the time—into written works. Recalling the incident later on, Carrière writes: “I agreed, and won—thus deciding, although I didn’t yet know it, the course of my life.”
A strange start for a career, perhaps, but a literally instructive one for Carrière, since it led to a ten-day education that he now considers his coming of age. Asked by Tati about what he understood of filmmaking, he responded with the full extent of his knowledge, which is to say: nothing. For the exacting French director, this wouldn’t do. So, as Carrière recalls, Tati’s longtime editor Suzanne Baron then seated him in front of a Moviola fitted with a reel of Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday; and with the script in hand, and Tati and Baron's instruction, he started to learn, more or less, the art of motion pictures.
From the beginning, there was no sense of literary aloofness, no illusion that the (type)written word should ever stand independent of the finished film. Reflecting on the cinema in his 1990 volume The Secret Language of Film, Carrière writes that “a screenwriter has to be much more a filmmaker than a novelist.” Each of his screenplays, then, were not finished works, but instruments subjected to “a whole series of special readings,” pages to be “read, annotated, dissected—and discarded.” It is, perhaps, the legendary screenwriter’s embrace of this ultimate disposability that accounts for his astonishing prolificity. The five-week retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art spans six decades of Carrière’s work, but even at 37 films, constitutes less than a third of his career.
Though the impact of that initial encounter with Tati was considerable, Carrière never did write a film for the French director. The start of his cinematic career would come a few years later with Tati’s assistant Pierre Étaix, a gag-man, musician, magician, and an accomplished director in his own right. The oldest film in the retrospective is Happy Anniversary, an Oscar-winning short Carrière made with Étaix in 1962. But of more note is Yoyo (1965), the feature that plays alongside it, an inventive, ambitious black-and-white comedy that traces the fortunes of a young circus-performer across a number of decades. The film starts out as an homage to silent comedy, shifts to sound when the Depression hits (linking the talkies with disaster), zips through the entirety of WWII, and then transforms into a portrait of a jaded comic who has successfully leveraged the advent of TV—and the general commercial apparatus of entertainment—to his advantage. As with the films of Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, though, any assessment of Yoyo beyond its considerable technical facility will depend on how one responds to Étaix’s personality, so from this alone it’s rather difficult to suss out what Carrière, then still in his thirties, brought to the table.
Then again, perhaps it’s more useful to consider the impact of that formative collaboration on Carrière’s later films. In particular, one might examine how his early exposure to gag work influenced the features for which he is best known: the six-film stretch of collaborations with Luis Buñuel from The Diary of a Chambermaid (1964) to That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), all of which are included in the present retrospective. Given Buñuel’s background, these films certainly owe much to the Surrealist tradition, but their sundry shifts also evince a bona fide scenarist’s comic construction. The clearest example of this is The Phantom of Liberty (1974), where the humor of the film’s anything-goes digressions derives from a calm acceptance of outrageous behavior, augmented by Buñuel’s coolly detached style; the extended sequence that shows toilet seats arranged around a dinner table, and meals surreptitiously consumed in individual stalls—one of the script’s characteristic reversals of established norms—shows this working model in action. The film is also the culmination of Buñuel’s measured skepticism regarding traditional story structure, which one likewise sees in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), with its endlessly delayed meal and a series of mostly plotless digressions that together constitute something of a droll tightrope walk.
The stature of the Buñuel-Carrière films is such that most cinephiles will have their own preferences: To my mind, Discreet Charm is the ideal instance of the pair’s collaborations, while The Phantom of Liberty, though its stock has risen since its original run, tests the desirability of their methods in pure, uncut form. Likewise, Chambermaid, though deemed insufficiently "Buñuelian" by some, now seems greater than its reputation, and Belle de jour (1967) somewhat lesser, though the mysterious, buzzing box that Catherine Deneuve’s Séverine encounters during one of her trysts remains an iconic encapsulation of Carrière’s governing interests. In That Obscure Object of Desire, he and Buñuel craft a fine career-capper, a film with echoes in works as distinct as Hong Sang-soo’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. At the very least, the 1977 film’s final, explosive image serves as a fitting end to the pair’s approach to the everyday, which he sums up as: “Newspapers, then dreams.”
That desire to explicitly draw from reality is another thing Carrière picked up from Tati, who trained him to just sit and observe, to study patrons and passersby alike, and to attach his artistry to a particular time and place. And why not—for Carrière’s career as a whole is marked by “propitious places” that either offered or facilitated moments of serendipity. (Of Tati’s singular genius, he remarked that it’s “as if God had created the world so that it could furnish a film by Jacques Tati.”) His fruitful partnership with Buñuel, for instance, was born out of a single lunch at Cannes, during which the Spanish filmmaker asked a young Carrière a potentially disqualifying question: “Do you drink wine?” His answer—that he did, and actually came from a family of vintners—was an auspicious one. And as it turns out, they also shared Mediterranean backgrounds and deeply rooted Catholic upbringings, the latter of which inevitably informs the “heresy” of The Milky Way (1969).
Their friendship turned out to be a lasting one. Throughout years of work, the pair would take frequent visits to Toledo—in particular, to the tomb of Cardinal Juan Pardo de Tavera—trips that would take for Carrière the status of ritual; he would continue these pilgrimages even after Buñuel’s death. The intimacy of their relationship was such that, when Carrière first ghost-wrote the material would eventually become Buñuel’s memoir My Last Sigh (1982)—which was, per Carrière, about the things most important to the storied director: “God, death, women, wine, and dreams”—Buñuel himself said that he felt as if he had written it.
The self-effacement implied there might seem, at first glance, unusual for such an acclaimed artist, especially one who has distinguished himself in so many areas of artistic and intellectual life. (Included in the retrospective is 1983’s La tragédie de Carmen, a reimagining of Bizet’s opera directed by Peter Brook, who was, by Carrière's own admission, as important to his career in the theater as Buñuel was in the cinema.) If Carrière was, in fact, possessed of hubris in his screenwriting, he hid it well, since his wide-ranging career seems characterized by a distinct humility. After all, it takes a certain personality to commit one’s life to, in essence, a vanishing object. (Elsewhere in The Secret Language of Film: “Of all writing, a screenplay is the one doomed to the smallest readership: at most, a hundred people.” Carrière likely has some thoughts on editing bearing the designation of the “invisible art.”)
In Carrière, one certainly finds a willingness to suppress, or at least curtail individual contributions. For example, when discussing the creative voices present in Every Man For Himself (1980), Jean-Luc Godard’s “second first film” made following his ‘70s work with the Dziga Vertov Group, one is likely to identify the French screenwriter third (after co-writers Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville), if at all. Even surveying the numerous films not included in the retrospective, one isn’t likely to find many pictures in which his contributions overwhelm the whole—nothing like, say, the way Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman’s script stands as the defining creative element of The Sweet Smell of Success (1957).
Max mon amour
But this is far from saying that Carrière has no distinctive, identifiable voice at all. Arguably the finest example of his creative personality is Nagisa Oshima’s Max mon amour (1986), about a diplomat (Anthony Higgins) whose wife (Charlotte Rampling) takes a chimpanzee named Max as her lover. Though it was something of a lateral leap for Oshima in terms of working method, the film plays as an extension of the six Buñuel-Carrière collaborations, and allows viewers to recontextualize the authorship of those pictures. In addition, it illustrates a recurring element of the screenwriter’s method, which is the way potential plot details are introduced then quickly dispensed with, either by unexpectedly resolving them or having the expected outcome stated aloud, so it becomes improbable. In place of tensions predicated on the untoward discovery of socially “perverse” behavior, there’s a heightened sense of unknowability rooted in the calm acceptance of the very same. The film’s very first scene has Higgins’s cuckolded husband cleaning a firearm, an obvious Chekhov’s gun. But within 15 minutes, the wife's affair is revealed, a marital solution brokered, and the threat of killing the chimp voiced aloud, so the viewer’s interests are diverted from the expected sleuthing (a hired detective played by Pierre Étaix quickly becomes a useless appendage) to the practical details of the arrangement: how Max is to be housed in the couple's mansion. Furthermore, the expectation of some sort of death is dispensed with right away, because surely the filmmakers wouldn’t follow through on such a banal development.
Max mon amour also serves as a particularly lucid example of Carrière’s attraction to material concerned with, well, that obscure object of desire, which binds even the most disparate entries of his filmography; there’s a direct line from Catherine Deneuve’s glassy perfection in Belle de jour to Rampling’s icy repose here. After all, what else could be said to connect a sun-stroked, Highsmith-esque picture like Jacques Deray’s The Swimming Pool (1968), which mainly seems an excuse to ogle Alain Delon, Romy Schneider, and the lush Côte d'Azur scenery; to Philippe Garrel’s Lover for a Day (2017), which pares down its story—about a young woman in the throes of a recent breakup moving in back in with her father, whose newest girlfriend is her age—to bare, but still luminous form. Also in the program is a preview screening of Louis Garrel’s forthcoming A Faithful Man (2018), a trifling relationship drama that toggles between limply deadpan and outright ludicrous, and is of interest mainly—perhaps solely—as a rejoinder of sorts to his father’s previous feature, In the Shadow of Women (also co-written by Carrière), in everything from the contrasting implications of the title (faithfulness vs. infidelity), down to the near-identical running times (75 vs. 73 minutes) and shared use of widescreen (entirely bewildering in the case of the younger Garrel's movie).
The same interest in the vagaries and valences of longing could also be said to fuel such projects as The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), an adaptation of Milan Kundera’s notoriously “unfilmable” 1984 novel about two couples around the time of the 1968 Prague Spring—but it’s more accurately catalogued alongside Carrière’s numerous adaptations. Half of his Buñuel scripts were drawn from source novels, and in addition he never shied away from literary luminaries like Proust or Flaubert and indeed took on gargantuan projects such as Peter Brook's nine-hour stage and five-hour film version of the Sanskrit epic The Mahabharata. Included in the MoMA program are Miloš Forman’s Valmont (1989), yet another adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos’s epistolary novel Dangerous Liaisons; the Gérard Depardieu-vehicle Danton (1983), distinguished by Andrzej Wajda’s portentous staging and a preponderance of talk; and Cyrano de Bergerac (1990), Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s popular iteration of Edmond Rostand’s original play, also starring Depardieu. More often than not, these undertakings were well-received: The Unbearable Lightness of Being vaulted Juliette Binoche into the international limelight; Depardieu won Best Actor at Cannes in 1990; while Danton won a slew of Césars and one Academy Award. And when all else failed, there were always the costume awards.
There’s no getting around the occasional stodginess of such undertakings; the sense of a literary/theatrical work being condensed—the impression of an accomplished but slightly stultifying parade of incident—is difficult to avoid. Still, Carrière remained scrupulous about selecting only projects he could envision as films. (Of the various texts he and Buñuel were offered but rejected, there was Malcolm Lowry’s 1947 novel Under the Volcano, subsequently adapted by John Huston.) The successes of his efforts have as much to do with his awareness of how a film is made—Tati’s first, enduring lesson—as to his own ability to stage and storyboard. An amateur visual artist, Carrière often illustrated his scripts with Buñuel, though outside that partnership, Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum (1979), adapted from Günter Grass’s seminal twentieth century German novel, was likewise extensively illustrated—which makes sense given the film’s plenitude of memorable images, most notably the point-of-view shot of a long-awaited birth, conveyed in dizzying, febrile red-oranges and blood trickling over the lens.
That The Tin Drum now seems a much lesser achievement than Apocalypse Now, with which it shared the Palme d’Or at the 1979 Cannes Film Festival, is neither here nor there, though it’s worth noting that Carrière managed to garner throughout his career a measure of acclaim. (The picture also won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.) The Oscars aren't a great measure of talent, but his various screenwriting nominations speak to, at the very least, the respect conferred by his name within his practice. In 2014, he became an Academy Award Honoree, though ironically his sole outright win remains the short film prize for Happy Anniversary back in 1963. Outside his artistic practice, Carrière's most lasting contribution is the French state film school La Fémis (the subject of Claire Simon’s 2016 documentary The Competition), which he founded with Jack Gajos and chaired for an entire decade starting in 1986.
The bulk of MoMA’s retrospective concentrates on the ‘60s to the ‘80s, the period that saw his most notable collaborations with established auteurs. The 2000s, during which he accrued numerous credits on television work, are represented solely by Birth (2004), Jonathan Glazer’s sophomore feature, a Kubrickian New York drama about a 10-year-old boy (Cameron Bright) who claims to be the reincarnation of a woman’s (Nicole Kidman) dead husband. Unjustly treated upon initial release, the film has (deservedly) risen in critical stature. Though the film is now most memorable for Kidman’s performance (five years after Eyes Wide Shut), Alexandre Desplat’s best-ever score, and Glazer’s luminous slow zoom on Kidman during an opera performance, Carrière’s contributions aren’t difficult to detect. There’s the same equanimity in the face of shocking behavior, and a continued commitment to limning the contours of desire and taboo; the considerable emphasis on matters of faith, though, is likely Glazer’s contribution. As the British filmmaker recalls it, their collaboration might better be described as a kind of consultation; starting from Glazer’s paragraph-long idea for the film, the seasoned screenwriter helped him flesh out the story over a period of 18 months. When speaking of his auteur collaborations in general, Carrière asserts: "My job is to help the director find the reasons why he chose this film," he says. "Sometimes he doesn't know."
Given Carrière’s inimitable, wide-ranging career, it’s fair to wonder why he didn’t pursue a directorial career. His only solo directorial credit in the retrospective is the short film The Nail Clippers (1969), which, though made with the help of Miloš Forman, is more in line with his Buñuel scripts. Winner of a Special Jury Prize at Cannes, the film follows a couple (Michael Lonsdale and Anne-Marie Deschodt) as they check into a hotel and unpack in their rooms; the man wants to cut his nails, but after misplacing his clippers, he finds that his wife along with all of his belongings begin to disappear. When the concierge comes to the room after being summoned, he finds it empty—that is, save a pair of nail clippers on the carpeted floor.
That eponymous found object is apt a metaphor as any for Carrière’s impact; he seems to leave trace continuities and fleeting flashes of brilliance everywhere, even at the risk of diminishing his own voice or, indeed, disappearing altogether—an approach that has, paradoxically, ensured his longevity. Since it’s impossible to really encapsulate his enormous body of work, it may be best to note a minor detail: that without Carrière, Buñuel might have titled his 1972 film The Charm of the Bourgeoisie; one shudders to think how the memorable discussion of that film in Whit Stillman's Metropolitan (1990) would play without that crucial addition of "discreet." Perhaps therein lies the nature of Carrière’s contributions: those touches of wit that feel so perfect and natural as to be taken for granted, but when removed make the entire thing feel utterly wrong, the kind of small decisions upon which the fortunes of an entire picture are made.
"Jean-Claude Carrière" runs from May 9–June 16 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

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