"The imagination is a muscle, and it must be exercised."
This was agreed between screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière and director Luis Buñuel when they started to collaborate in the 1960s (six films in total, plus a screenplay for The Monk, which sadly Buñuel never got to shoot). Meeting in quiet bars, they would work on the current script in the morning and then separate for lunch. When they reunited in the afternoon, each would have to tell the other a story. Not necessarily anything to do with the film at hand. Just something to keep the creative fires banked. (One suspects that Bunuel's penultimate movie, The Phantom of Liberty, may be composed in part of several of these throwaway tales.)
The Nail Clippers, written and directed by Carrière in 1969, could well have grown from one of these lunchtime anecdotes, but whatever its origins, it's the perfect short film. Carrière's only work as director, co-written by Czech auteur Milos Forman, it is simple, elegant, and quietly mad, like the best Buñuel skits.
A bourgeois couple, Michael Lonsdale and Anne-Marie Deschott, check into a swank hotel. The pace is leisurely, the tipping is parsimonious (Lonsdale coldly sorting out a precise few coins to give to his cabbie and to the bellboy). The pair move around their room, deodorizing the sink, checking the sheets, each a frigid exemplar of anal-retentive, soulless modernity. They scarcely interact at all.
For the first half of the film, we seem to be simply observing behaviour, the outward traces of a relationship that has ceased to have any meaning. It's a fascinating character study via minutiae, but where is it going?
The lesson to be learned from this movie is one of purity and simplicity: the single idea, developed just far enough, that is both recognizable and original. Carrière never strays from his single, sinister and beautiful premise, but takes his own sweet time developing it, and along the way is crisp and vivid in his characterisation (partly thanks to the unique Lonsdale, with his big boy's head and elongated limbs, and his air of total self-containment).
Then Lonsdale loses his nail clippers. He's unpacked his overnight bag, placed it in the bathroom, removed the clippers, and has just put them down for a second on a little table (Carrière tracks in on his star, and then Lonsdale looks for the clippers, he tracks out—they've vanished while they were briefly offscreen.
Frustrated, Lonsdale is forced to consult his wife.
"Have you seen my nail clippers?"
"Have you lost them?
We have arrived, at last, at a situation. The baffling drama of the vanishing object, familiar to every one of us. But what if it didn't end there? What if the mysterious forces of the universe which cause things to inexplicably disappear from where we know they should be, stepped up their ages-long war against us?
Lonsdale retraces his steps. He took the clippers from his bag, in the bathroom. But now his bag is gone. This is becoming uncanny.
"Did you move my bag?"
"Why? Have you lost it?"
The overnight bag came from his suitcase. Which he left on a chair. Except it's no longer there. Finally his wife realizes that something is wrong. Lonsdale's movements are tense, his great long flipper-like hands rise in sudden gestures: "Don't move! Listen!" Something strange is going on...
He turns to say something to his wife. She's no longer there. All the things she unpacked have gone too.
He calls the manager.
The manager comes.
And finds an empty room.
On the floor—what's this?
A pair of nail clippers.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.