Jean-Claude Carrière with his daughter Kiara
© Gautier Deblonde

To interview the screenwriter of The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1987), Cyrano de Bergerac (1990) and most of Luis Buñuel’s French oeuvre requires me to find a discreet Parisian archway that opens on to a charming tree-shaded courtyard. On one side is a white house with a large terrace on which stands Jean-Claude Carrière, the man who describes film as “the first language successfully invented by man”.

In France Carrière is hailed as a leading intellectual who happens to have one of the most distinguished lists of screenwriting credits in the world. Mention him to a French person and they are likely to talk about his 1996 book Conversations sur l’invisible, his exploration of the frontiers of science or his theatrical partnership with Peter Brook. Where another writer might have been typecast for life as a surrealist following a collaboration with Buñuel on The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), Carrière has been mercurial in the extreme, working with directors as diverse as Jesus Franco and Louis Malle. Today he is as much in demand as ever and has just returned from Spain where Milos Forman is filming his script of Goya’s Ghost.

Before I have the chance to ask a question Carrière starts to talk about The Mahabharata. He adapted this ancient Indian epic for a 1985 stage production directed by Peter Brook, it emerged as a five-hour film in 1989 and he has recently been asked to take a stage production back to India. ‘’An Indian friend said to me: ‘Once you’ve entered the Mahabharata, you never escape.’ But it’s a pleasure, a delight,” Carrière says. He has noticed parallels between this tale of warfare and the present conflict in Iraq: like Saddam Hussein, Duryodhana, the king of the Kaurava, is eventually caught hiding in a hole, and his two sons are slaughtered.

The Mahabharata (1989)

As Carrière speaks I notice the ancient Indian carvings that decorate the room we are sitting in and I wonder if I’ll ever manage to shift the conversation to his early career and his work with Buñuel. But when I ask him what made him a writer in the first place, he answers willingly.

“I am a pure product of the French public education system,” he explains. He was “born to be a peasant”, the son of parents who could not have afforded to send him to college, but at the age of nine he was judged the brightest child in his département, setting him on a path that led eventually to France’s elite École Normale Superieure in Saint-Cloud. There he received the education which, he believes, forms the bedrock of his ability to tell stories and gave him the practical skills his work requires. “Some of the teachers really taught me how to work – how, for example, to use a library. This saves you a lot of time and even now I work much more rapidly than young people.”

To illustrate his point he tells me about the research he undertook for the script of Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s Cyrano de Bergerac. Facing the tricky question of how Cyrano manages to escape each day through the besieging Spanish lines to post his letter to Roxane, Carrière started looking at agricultural history. He discovered that in the 17th century wheat was considerably taller than it is today, and when he contacted the Musee d’Histoire Naturelle it emerged that strains of ancient cereal crops had been preserved. A field was sown in Hungary and several months later Cyrano could run, unseen, through the towering wheat.

Cyrano de Bergerac (1990)

Following university, Carrière did his national service in Algeria, the subject of C’était la guerre (1993), his only autobiographical film. He had already published a novel and two novelisations of Jacques Tati films: Tati had invited writers to submit outlines for Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday and Carrière won the commission by proposing that the story be told from the point of view of a minor character. He followed it up with a reverse-chronology adaptation of Mon oncle.

Despite what Carrière describes as Tati’s “persecution mania” they became friends, and Tati allowed his assistant Pierre Etaix to teach Carrière about the filmmaking process. “This was the early 1960s and everybody wanted to make films. I was a member of the cinéclub at university and I was addicted. I didn’t want to do anything else.’’ After his national service, Carrière and Etaix made two short films, the second of which, Heureux anniversaire (1961), won an Oscar. (“When the producer told us we had won the Oscar, we asked, ‘What is an Oscar?’,” Carrière recalls.) A first feature, Le Soupirant (1962), followed: it was a remake of Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925), and it attracted the attention of Luis Buñuel.

“The first edition of La Revolution surréaliste had included an article about Buster Keaton and American slapstick – which is very close to the surrealistic state of mind,” Carrière explains. Buñuel had also admired a documentary Carrière had written about the sexual life of animals and Carrière was one of a handful of writers the director met to talk about scripting his next feature. “I knew he was looking to adapt The Diary of a Chambermaid so I did some preparation and we had a long talk about it. A week later the producer called me and said, ‘You are going to Spain tomorrow.’ That was the beginning of my wanderings around the world.”

Diary of a Chambermaid (1964)

From then on Buñuel employed Carrière to write all his French films in a partnership that lasted 19 years. Their final collaboration was Buñuel’s memoirs My Last Sigh (1982), and Carrière described to me how he persuaded the reluctant director to embark on the project: “He couldn’t work any more – he was 79 or 80. When I proposed that we write a book about him he refused, so to convince him I wrote one of the chapters, just as if I were Buñuel himself. When he read it, he said, ‘I think I wrote it!’ And I said, Well, in a way you did’, because from talking to him so much I knew his character and his history. So then we started to work exactly as if it were a script: working together in the morning, talking, then me alone in the afternoon, writing.”

It is perhaps this ability to enter the mind-set of highly idiosyncratic creative personalities that has drawn so many of the world’s finest directors to Carrière over the years. And once a director has teamed up with him, you can be almost sure they’ll come back for more. Carrière seems to enter each new project wanting to learn from the experience rather than starting with a set of fixed ideas. Whether his subject is a woman who falls in love with a chimpanzee as in Nagisa Oshima’s Max mon amour (1986) or a bunch of petty criminals on the make in post-war France as in Jacques Deray’s Le Gang (1976), he approaches it with enthusiasm and a robust imagination.

“The imagination is a seamless capacity of the mind,” he says. “But it is also a sort of muscle.” And it was Buñuel, he tells me, who introduced him to the idea of giving this muscle regular exercise: after the day’s work they would both withdraw to their rooms to create a story which they would tell each other over cocktails.

Max mon amour (1986)

Unsurprisingly, Carrière doesn’t share the screenwriting gurus’ obsession with story structure. “They are teachers, not writers,” he says. “I agree with Kant that you must know the rules if you want to break them, but I had a classical education – I learned storytelling from Shake­speare, Racine, Seneca. And when you’re working with the kind of directors I work with, you know you’re not going to respect conventional storytelling.”

Alongside his creative work Carrière has engaged in an ongoing analysis of film’s continually evolving language, which led to his 1986 appointment as director of France’s most prestigious film school, FEMIS, and to a series of international engagements as a lecturer. His 1994 book The Secret Language of Film uses all kinds of devices to draw our attention to aspects of cinematic grammar that have become so familiar we barely notice them. In one passage he describes Algerian villagers who were shown a film designed to prevent trachoma. Among the images were close-ups of the species of fly that causes the condition, but the villagers couldn’t understand why this was relevant to them, pointing out: “We don’t have flies of that size here.” They were not conditioned, as we are, to accept casual distortions of scale.

At this point Carrière’s two-year-old daughter Kiara totters into the room, clambers on to his lap and falls asleep. I turn the conversation to the contrast between working in Europe and the US, and Carrière points out that he regards the studio films he has made as “not really American. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, for instance, takes place in Europe, and the director Phil Kaufman is a friend of mine.”

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1987)

Mention of this film takes him back to 1968, when he had just finished writing The Milky Way for Buñuel and was working on the script for Taking Off (1971), Milos Forman’s essay on the American hippie movement. They researched the story in New York then proceeded to Paris to do the writing as the May riots were coming to the boil.

Carrière’s closeness to Buñuel and Forman gave him a fresh perspective: “Buñuel was corning from fascist Spain and Milos from communist Czechoslovakia, and they couldn’t understand what the students wanted.” But Carrière lent the movement his support: “We gained so much. It was the beginning of women’s liberation, homosexual rights, the ecology movement…” And the events provide the backdrop to a trilogy of his scripts – The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Taking Off and Milou in May (1989).

Carrière tells me that he hates to repeat himself and recently turned down an offer to adapt another Indian epic, the Ramayana. Instead he has chosen to enter the world of opera. “I noticed that in opera there are long scenes of dialogue which are not sung and are always boring and badly acted.” So he had the idea of replacing them with short, well-written texts that would be read by a professional actor. “Maybe it’s a new form,” he says, “and that really interests me.”

He brings the interview to a close with a story that takes us back to his roots. He has retained what he calls his “native home” in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France and recently invited over a neighbour who has never left the area to show him a dry stone wall he’d built. The neighbour assessed Carrière’s efforts and finally announced: “You have not lost everything.” Even this idea – that Jean-Claude Carrière should never have left the family farm – is one to which he remains open.

Further reading

In memory of Jean-Claude Carrière: the late screenwriter in conversation

The legendary French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, famed above all for his six-film collaboration with Luis Buñuel, has died at the age 89. Nick James spoke to him about his craft as he turned 80 for this interview published in our June 2012 issue, which we republish in his memory.

By Nick James

In memory of Jean-Claude Carrière: the late screenwriter in conversation

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