Jean-Claude Carriere (1931-2021)

Image: Vasco Prado


Commentary on the intellectual trajectory of the recently deceased French screenwriter

Writing about Jean-Claude Carrière is not easy. Just as there are many ways to understand his artistic trajectory, there are few alternatives to avoid falling into superlatives. Writer, essayist, playwright, director, actor, screenwriter, all these biases lead us to some facet of his work. If we want to concentrate on his activity as a screenwriter, the task is not that simple either. Over six decades, more than 100 screenplays have been written, including shorts and features, films for cinema and television, original or adapted works.

If we take into account the directors he worked with, we can easily go through the great names in the history of cinema, such as Luis Buñuel, Milos Forman, Jean Luc Godard, Louis Malle, Nagisa Oshima, Héctor Babenco, Peter Brook, Carlos Saura , between others. About the work of literary authors that he adapted for the cinema, the list is also considerable, ranging from Swann's Love (Marcel Proust), passing through The unbearable lightness of being (Milan Kundera), reaching Belle de Jour (Joseph Kessel) Memories of my sad whores (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), among others.

However, in the midst of such merits for an impeccable trajectory, I focus here on aspects that may not be so visible, but which also characterize the trajectory of this Frenchman born in 1931, who unfortunately left us on February XNUMXth. A first point to highlight is his discretion. Carrière dedicated a large part of his career to an art that is ephemeral by nature, to a craft that few people will read (in general terms, reading a script is restricted to the director, the technical team and the actors who will play the film).

The image that he and Pascal Bonitzer put right in the book's introduction Cinematic Script Practice is impeccable on this point: “Often, at the end of each recording, the scripts are found in the studio wastebaskets. They are torn, crumpled, dirty, abandoned. Few are the people who keep a copy, even less those who have them bound or collect them. In other words, the script is a transitory state, a passing form destined to metamorphose and disappear, like a caterpillar that becomes a butterfly (BONITZER, CARRIÈRE, 1991, p.13).

There is, in this understanding, a discretion and a conscience. Following one of the first teachings he received about cinema – from director Jacques Tati and editor Suzanne Baron –, Carrière claims the need for screenwriters to be fully aware of how films are made. This knowledge makes the writing of a screenplay able to adapt to the specificities of the cinematographic language itself and to the transformations that the work will undergo to reach its definitive form.

As Carrière states, “in addition to facing these constraints, with this obligatory passage through the hands of actors and technicians, it is necessary to possess a special quality, difficult both to acquire and to maintain: humility. Not only because the film most often belongs to the director, and only his name will be glorified (or defamed), but also because the written work, after being handled and used intensively, will finally be discarded, like the skin of the caterpillar. At some point in the process, the screenwriter must be able to distance himself from the devotion to his work, transferring all his love to the film” (2014, p.137).

It is from this continuous exercise of discretion and humility that we can also identify another of Carrière's facets: preparing the film scripts in partnership with the directors themselves. This is how he worked for “thirteen years with Pierre Etaix, twenty years with Buñuel and sixteen years with Peter Brook” (GONÇALVES FILHO, 2001, p.118). His trajectory also shows an ongoing partnership with filmmakers such as Milos Forman and the Garrel family (Philippe and son Louis). This is not necessarily proof of a peaceful and tranquil process (which creation process would it be?), but this longevity in partnerships proves a value of Carrière's own aggregating personality.

On this aspect, he made an interesting comment in the book The secret language of cinema: “the screenwriter must not only learn to delve into his own dark depths during the act of writing, but also have the courage to expose himself to his partner. He must have the courage to suggest this or that specific idea (…) he needs to submit to an endless exercise of shamelessness” (2014, p.153). The consequence of this? The recognition of those who sought this shamelessness with him.

Naturally, one of the great partnerships in the history of cinema comes to mind: Buñuel and Carrière. In the memoir my last breath, it is possible to find considerable recognition from the Spanish filmmaker to the French screenwriter: “For almost all of my films (with the exception of four), I needed a writer, a screenwriter, to help me put the script and dialogues in black and white. Throughout my life I've worked with 28 different writers. (...) The one with whom I most identified was without a doubt Jean Claude Carrière. Together, starting in 1963, we wrote six films” (2009, p.338).

The key to understanding the success of this partnership is also how both conceived classics like A Maid's Diary (1964) The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie (1972) This Obscure Object of Desire (1977). In his biography, Buñuel states a preponderant factor for the elaboration of a good story: “the essential thing in a script seems to me to be the interest in a good progression, which does not leave the spectator's attention at rest for any moment. One can discuss a film's content, its aesthetic (if it has one), its style, its moral bent. But he must never be bored” (2009, p.338).

Never bore the viewer

The common point between Buñuel and Carrière is in the understanding that cinema is progression, involvement, desire. Both through adapted and original scripts, Carrière understood that “the story begins when the person you shake hands with acquires, with that, an option about your most intimate thoughts, about your most hidden desires, about your destiny” (BONITZER; CARRIÈRE, 1991, p.131).

Thus, he and Buñuel led them to the condition of voyeurs before Severine's choice to become the afternoon beauty. In this work, we are accomplices in the choices of an unhappy housewife who decides to spend her afternoons as a prostitute in a brothel. We follow her impulses, her fears of being discovered, the discovery of a way to meet her most secret desires.

We come to one last point here. Carrière's discretion is also combined with the refinement of his narratives. Even with scripts so different from each other, one does not expect her works to have wild twists, low blows to gain the viewer's attention or structural schematisms “a la Syd Field”. As he himself states in The secret language of cinema, the less the form of the script is felt in the film, the greater its impact will be. To defend this conception, Carrière made an analogy with the work of actors. “I prefer actors whose acting I don't see, where talent and skill have given way to a more intimate quality. I don't like to say: how well he acts! I prefer the actor to make me come closer to him; I prefer to forget that he is an actor and let him transport me – as he himself was transported – to another world. I don't like extravagance, effects, gimmicks and make-up. The same goes for the script. And, of course, for the direction. Great art never leaves clues” (2014, p. 177).

Carrière was a screenwriter who didn't try to “carry on the ink”. Even in what is perhaps one of the most markedly authorial scripts of her trajectory, it is possible to find this refinement of his style. In The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie, Buñuel and Carrière constantly shift us into surrealist situations, inviting us to immerse ourselves in the universe of a group of bourgeois who live off frivolities and social conventions, indifferent to a world in turmoil around them. Each movement in this film reminds us of its authorship.

However, the sarcasm sought by the authors ends up subtly leading the narrative, with a strange tone that questions us and, at the same time, seduces us. The synthesis of this can be understood in the process of choosing the title. As Buñuel comments: “While working on the script, we didn't think for a single moment about the bourgeoisie. Last night (…) we decided to come up with a title. One of which I had considered, in reference to the carmagnolle, was 'Down with Lenin or The Virgin of the Stable'. Another, simply: “The charm of the bourgeoisie”. Carrière called my attention to the fact that an adjective was missing and, out of a thousand, “discrete” was chosen. It seemed to us that, with that title, The discreet charm of the bourgeoisie, the film took on another shape and almost another background. We looked at him in a different way” (2009, p.344).

It is for these and other reasons that the history of cinema is also written from the “secret history” contained in the elaboration of scripts. With his usual discretion, Carrière is one of the protagonists of this story.

*Rafael Valles is a writer, documentary filmmaker, teacher and researcher.


BONITZER, Pascal; CARRIÈRE, Jean Claude. The end – practice of the cinematographic script. Barcelona: Paidós, 1991.

BUÑUEL, Luis. my last breath. São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2009.

CARRIÈRE, Jean-Claude. The secret language of cinema. Rio de Janeiro: New Frontier, 2014.

GONÇALVES FILHO, Antonio. the word castaway. São Paulo: Cosac Naify, 2001.


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