Interview: Jean-Claude Carrière on his collaboration with Louis Buñuel on ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie’

With the 40th Anniversary release of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie on DVD & Blu-ray Steven Galvin chats to the film’s writer Jean-Claude Carrière.

The newly restored film The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) is released on DVD and Blu-ray this week to mark 40 years since its first release. Louis Buñuel’s surreal satire follows the doomed attempts of a bourgeois couple to host a dinner party. It is his most successful film and won an Oscar® for best foreign film. The film is one of many classics on which Buñuel collaborated wth the prolific and legendary writer Jean-Claude Carrière, others included Belle de Jour (1967),  The Phantom of Liberty (1974), and That Obscure Object of Desire (1977). Carrière himself is credited as writer on over 130 scripts, including The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Cyrano de Bergerac, The Tin Drum, Birth and recently was script editor for Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon.

Carrière was in Ireland recently for the 23rd Cork French Film Festival (4–11 March) and has fond memories of the country, in particular he recalled enjoying his time at the Listowel Writers’ Week Festival, describing it as ‘very impressive’.

40 years looking back at The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie Carrière describes his initial feeling as happiness that the film is ‘still there and still alive’. ‘When you write a film you hope for some success for a few months or a year. But 40 years after? That’s something extraordinary.’ And what would Buñuel himself think were he alive today? ‘Maybe he would be the first to be surprised,’ Carrière responds with a smile.

Carrière recalls how The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie was a difficult film to write. ‘It took us 2 years to write. We wrote 5 different versions of the film before we found the right balance between reality and unreality. We didn’t want to fall into the ordinary on the one side but also not on the fantasy, on the extraordinary.’

The film is marked by its lack of distinction between what is real and what is not. ‘Buñuel was also looking for a very, very narrow path in between different dangers.’

The film uses dreams within dreams and often breaks the fourth wall in an effective way to unsettle any conscious narrative, but surprisingly enough ‘the dreams came only on the 3rd version that we wrote and they gave another dimension to the film.’

Carrière remembers that ‘when the film was released it was extraordinary to see the reaction of the people. They were accepting the film. After working in solitude for months and months together and then you realize that thousands of people agree and share with you what you have offered to them, that is a fantastic pleasure.’ It must have been a particular pleasure considering the nature of the film and its unconventional form and content. ‘Yes, completely. It is totally unusual – even at the time it was. I don’t even know if today it would be possible to produce and make such a film. Maybe cinema was more daring at the time, bolder than today.’

But even then in more daring times, it was still a surprise for Carrière. ‘It was a huge surprise – and also the fact that it went all over the world and it won the Academy Award® – that was really something totally unexpected. When we were working on it we thought we were writing and working on a “small film” – for a small audience. But instead millions of people saw the film.’

Wondering what he could attribute this too, Carrière says that the film’s success could probably be ‘because the lightness of the film is hiding something much deeper – all the faults and all the crimes and murders.’ The film constantly alludes to this through the many interruptions of the meal with the secrets that hide under the surface of a damaged bourgeoisie – a bourgeoisie, according to Carrière, that is ‘light, quiet, silent, elegant, loving good drinks and good food; but underneath there is an abyss. Maybe that’s what made the success of the film.’

When I ask him about the title of the film, Carrière tells me that when he was writing the film with Buñuel ‘we never thought about bourgeoisie. The title came at the very end when we had finished the script. The title gives a certain angle to watch the film. Like in the surrealist paintings – apparently paintings with no meaning no sense, no direction; but the title gives you a way to look at the painting. And I think it’s the same for the title of this film.’

So the process of writing was very much a work-in-progress and evolved over the course of its development. ‘Absolutely. When a producer tells me that he needs a certain script for a certain time, I say “No. The script will be over when it’s over”; when it’s ready. That’s why it was always a privilege to work with Buñuel and his producer – they understood that we needed time to get used to our story.’

Often taking breaks from each other during the writing, Carrière refers to the importance of the unconscious and allowing it to play its role in the creative process. ‘Even when we took breaks from each other during writing the film there was an inside worker working night and day And we realized this, so that when we met again things that we had previously liked we didn’t like anymore and got rid of immediately and some solutions that we had been looking for vainly, all of a sudden were clear. And that was the work of the invisible worker.

‘This worker is very convenient because he’s never on strike; he works night and day; you don’t have to feed him; he works for free. But we must know that – our mind has some secret recesses that we need to preserve and protect and that we must not always work consciously.

‘We all have it but if we are too rational and logical we prevent the invisible worker from doing his work.’ It would seem Jean-Claude Carrière’s worker is doing a mighty job.

Steven Galvin

The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie is in cinemas now, and on DVD/Blu-ray on 16th July.