Jean-Claude Carrière has enjoyed a long and fruitful career as perhaps France's most important screenwriter, with extended collaborations with Buñuel and Pierre Étaix, as well as smaller stints with Milos Forman, Claude Berri, Jacques Deray and Jean-Luc Godard. He has also worked as co-director alongside Étaix, and his one solo job, the short film The Nail Clippers, is a little classic.
But Carrière has also carried on a modest career as an actor, playing small roles in many of the films based on his scenarios. 1971's L'alliance, directed by Christian de Chalonge, seems to be his one real attempt at becoming a movie star.
In a rather Buñuelian scenario, Carrière's Hugues presents himself at a dating agency and announces that he's looking to find a wife with a spacious apartment. It turns out that he's a vet and needs somewhere to both live and practice. He's not too fussy about what kind of wife he gets, but he's very precise about the kind of home she must have.
By chance, the newest female client at the agency turns out to be Anna Karina, possessor of a large and elegant suite of rooms as well as other pleasing qualities. The couple meet, and there's a disquieting moment when he catches her secretly taking delivery of two Siamese cats from the agency. "Just pretend you like them," says the man: evidently this is all arranged for Carrière's benefit. Shrugging away any suspicions, reader, he marries her.
And now, in an apartment gradually filling up with animals of all kinds, including stuffed and otherwise preserved dead ones, Carrière becomes prey to suspicions and insecurities about his mysterious wife. Is she having an affair? Is she a drug addict stealing his ether? Is she trying to kill him by unleashing that poisonous snake?
Carrière's low-key manner suits the film perfectly, and compliments Karina's measured performance. A distinctive quality of this beautiful, doll-like actress with the big button eyes has always been that no matter how expressive she is, there always seems to be something else going on which we sense but can't know about. In this film, it may have something to do with adultery, madness, or an impending animal apocalypse...
Like a good Buñuel movie, the script is decorated with intriguing little ideas and jokes. The refusal to do any research into the realities of veterinary practice allows the filmmakers (Chalonge is co-writer) to portray Carrière's work with hilarious fatuity. Asking after an unseen pet, he is told by one client, "His ear is all better, but he still gets headaches." Another, the owner of a formerly scrawny dog, remarks, "The hardest part was getting him to realize he was sick." The animal-infested home calls to mind the stray ostrich in Jean-Pierre Cassel's bedroom in The Phantom of Liberty.
All this domestic trouble is scored with an inexplicably scarifying soundtrack by Gilbert Amy, which has you scouring the corners of the frame for the source of the menace. I've come to believe that scary music is scarier when we don't know why it's there. Anyway, the film's ending, typically apocalyptic for Chalonge, one of those directors who would as soon destroy civilization as not, is a startling left-turn that's in keeping with the rest of the film precisely because there has been so little to warn of its coming.
The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.