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Jean-Claude Carrière obituary | Film

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One of the tenets observed by the screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière, who has died aged 89, was that “the scenario is created when you and the director establish a near telepathic communication. This requires, on both sides, a receptiveness and a trust which can never be taken for granted. The scriptwriter must on occasion be prepared to submerge his ego, since ultimately it’s the director’s film, and you’re there to help him, to facilitate him.”

Among the film directors whom Carrière “facilitated” were Louis Malle, Pierre Etaix, Volker Schlöndorff, Miloš Forman and, above all, Luis Buñuel, for and with whom he wrote six exemplary screenplays. Carrière first met Buñuel in 1963 when the latter was looking for a French co-writer on Diary of a Chambermaid, based on Octave Mirbeau’s 1900 novel. “Buñuel chose me only after eating lunch together and getting me to talk about the possible adaptation of the book. So, I went to Spain to work with one of the greatest directors of the era, a man whom I deeply admired. That started a collaboration which lasted for almost 20 years.” In Carrière, Buñuel found “the writer closest to me”.

Diary of a Chambermaid starred Jeanne Moreau in the title role, the catalyst who exposes the sexual, religious and social repressions of the middle-class provincial family for whom she works. By updating the story to the mid-1930s and making the character of Joseph a member of the French fascist party, Buñuel and Carrière brought the social satire into sharper focus.

Jean-Claude Carrière at his home in Paris in 2001.
Jean-Claude Carrière at his home in Paris in 2001. Photograph: Jean-Pierre Muller/AFP/Getty Images

At the very beginning of the collaboration, Carrière was so thrilled to be working with a master that he never disagreed with him. “Whenever he told me something I always said, ‘It’s wonderful, let’s do it’, always killing my own critical instinct and restraining from suggesting my own ideas about the adaptation.”

Indeed Buñuel told the producer Serge Silberman that Carrière should oppose him more often when he felt he was wrong. “So, from then on, I tried to say, ‘Luis, I don’t like this idea’ from time to time.”

By the time of their second film together, Belle de Jour (1967), they had, according to Carrière, “almost reached a real sense of collaboration”. Belle de Jour seemed pure Buñuel, although adapted from a novel by Joseph Kessel. And yet, it was such a close working relationship that neither of them could say which of them gave which idea to the other. The tale of a respectable doctor’s wife (Catherine Deneuve) who finds herself spending her afternoons in a high-class brothel – and enjoying it – was witty, erotic and elegant, with a subversive quality that took sharp aim at bourgeois hypocrisy.

There followed The Milky Way (1968), their first original screenplay, and the first of four episodic French films of Buñuel’s last years. It follows two tramps, who set off from Paris to make a pilgrimage to the Spanish shrine of Santiago de Compostela. On the way they meet various characters who expound in different ways on the six central “mysteries” of Catholic dogma. It was the fervent atheist director’s most direct treatment of Catholicism and it is as wryly amusing, mischievously anti-clerical and anti-establishment as the other films.

Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour, 1967.
Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour, 1967. Photograph: Allstar/Five Film

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), in which a small group of wealthy middle-class friends’ attempts to take a meal together are frustrated by a series of bizarre events, is a blistering but witty assault on Buñuel’s constant targets – the church, the state and the army. The script is masterful in the way it shifts between different levels of consciousness and depicts collective phobias.

“In art, a certain anti-conformism is necessary,” Carrière explained. “But I am a conformist in my life. I love good wine. I am heterosexual. I adore my family. Similarly, Buñuel led a bourgeois life. But, to progress, one must break away from what one has been taught.”

Their penultimate collaboration was The Phantom of Liberty (1974), a series of linked episodes moving from Toledo in 1808 to contemporary Paris in which various people try to grasp or debunk Karl Marx’s phrase of the title. Although as mordantly comic, fluent and subversive as one could expect, the loose structure, and some easy jokes and targets, betray a certain laziness. Of his work with Buñuel in general, Carrière acknowledged: “We chose the path of what is probable, but just at the limit, at the borderline of the improbable. It was a balance that was very difficult to maintain.”

That Obscure Object of Desire (1977), Buñuel’s last film as director, based on Pierre Louÿs’s novel La Femme et le Pantin, had a rich businessman (Fernando Rey) falling under the spell of his maid Conchita (Carole Bouquet and Angela Molina, alternating the roles). It was another sly bomb placed under the privileged classes.

While Buñuel had been born into a wealthy Aragonese family, Carrière came from peasant stock. He was born in Colombières-sur-Orb, a small village in the Languedoc region of southern France. When he was in his early teens, Carrière’s parents, Alice and Felix, moved to Montreuil-sous-Bois, near Paris, where they ran a bistro. A bright child at school, he gained a scholarship to study at the Ecole Normale Supérieure at Saint-Cloud, where he took a degree in history.

Carrière started out as a novelist, and his publisher put him in contact with Jacques Tati to write novelisations of his films. Through Tati, he met Etaix, who was Tati’s assistant. They co-scripted and co-directed two shorts: Rupture (1961) and Happy Anniversary (1962); the latter won the Oscar for best short subject (after three later nominations, Carrière was awarded an honorary Oscar in 2015). The first feature by Carrière (as writer) and Etaix (as director) was The Suitor (1963). A huge success at home and abroad, it established Etaix as “the French Buster Keaton”. This was followed by Yoyo (1965), Etaix’s masterpiece, an enchanting nostalgic comedy romance.

Despite their long collaboration, the shade of Buñuel hovers over hardly any of Carrière’s other screenplays, aside from Nagisa Oshima’s Max, Mon Amour (1986) in which a bored diplomat’s wife (Charlotte Rampling) forms a menage a trois with a chimpanzee.

Despite the chameleon-like character required of a screenwriter, Carrière emerged as having a dry, absurdist humour, alert to the pretensions of “the French bourgeoisie in all its self-satisfied myopia”. He wrote several genre films for the journeyman director Jacques Deray. Their biggest box-office hit was Borsalino (1970), starring Jean-Paul Belmondo and Alain Delon as petty crooks in the Marseille of the 30s.

Among Carrière’s few English-language film scripts were three for Forman: the Czech director’s first American movie, Taking Off (1971) – middle-class suburban families seen through the sardonic eyes of two foreign observers – and the period pieces Valmont (1989) and Goya’s Ghosts (2006).

Better were his adaptations of novels and plays such as Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum (1979) and Swann in Love (1984), Andrzej Wajda’s Danton (1982), Philip Kaufman’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) and Jean-Paul Rappeneau’s Cyrano de Bergerac (1990). For the latter, Carrière kept the rhymed alexandrine couplets of the play, while adding some extra scenes with such clever pastiche that few could tell where Rostand’s dialogue left off and Carrière’s began. In the same year, Carrière was reunited with Malle – having worked with him in the 60s on Viva Maria! (1965) and The Thief of Paris (1967) – for Milou en Mai (May Fools), a mellow comedy-drama, set in the country against the background of the events in Paris in 1968.

Considering how prolific he was, Carrière managed to keep a high standard and retained his reputation as the best screenwriter around. In addition to his screenplays and teleplays, he wrote 11 plays, and with Peter Brook he adapted The Mahabharata (1985) as a nine-hour-long stage work directed by Brook, one of many productions at the latter’s Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord, a converted music hall in the north of Paris. Brook praised Carrière’s “ability to render the underlying idea rather than the precise words” and said: “His language has the clarity of a freshwater spring.”

Carrière is survived by his third wife, the writer Nahal Tajadod, and their daughter, Kiara, and by a daughter, Iris, from his first marriage, to Augusta Bouy. His second wife, Nicole Janin, predeceased him.

• Jean-Claude Carrière, screenwriter, born 17 September 1931; died 8 February 2021

Ronald Bergan died in 2020

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