Spoke with Jean-Claude Carriere, the celebrated French author, playwright and scriptwriter, at Cinefan yesterday; he's conducting a talent workshop on the adaptation of books into films. I had first met Carriere around 6 years ago when he was in Delhi for the launch of In Search of the Mahabharata, the English translation of his book La Recherche du Mahabharata (based on Carriere's experiences adapting the great epic to the stage, and later screen, with British director Peter Brook). It was one of my first interviews as a journalist, conducted in a hurry with plenty of people around, and I was very nervous. Yesterday was much better; we sat down on the steps outside one of the auditoria, away from all the noise, and had a nice one-on-one chat.
Over the years I've seen Carriere's name displayed prominently in the credits of many high-quality films, but the chief point of fascination for me is that he worked very closely with Luis Bunuel, one of my favourite directors, in the 1960s and 1970s. They collaborated on the scripts of six of Bunuel's latter-day films, including Belle du Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and That Obscure Object of Desire. My favourite among those films is The Phantom of Liberty, a brilliantly subversive film that overturns conventional theories of narrative structure – first following one group of characters, then another, completely at random.
I asked Carriere about the film, and he related the story of how he and Bunuel got the idea for it:
"While talking, we stumbled upon the seed of a scenario that we were both fascinated by. It involved a man and a woman – probably a married couple – having a furious argument, a violent fight. While we don't know the exact reason for the fight, we learn that it hinges on the contents of a letter that is soon to be delivered to the house. The argument continues – the dialogue is very intense and engrossing, it holds the viewer's interest, and we're wondering what the letter could possibly contain. Then the doorbell rings, and it's the postman. He hands the letter over to the couple, they start to open it, but instead of staying with them the camera tracks to the right and follows the postman out the door!"
This scene wasn't used in the final film, but The Phantom of Liberty is full of such moments – little cul de sacs that can be very frustrating for a viewer. "It operates on an audacious principle," says Carriere. "First we follow one character whose story seems to be very interesting. Then his path crosses with someone else's, and we make a switch and start following the new character. It's like the camera is telling the viewer, 'hmm, this new person might have an even more interesting story for us, so let's take a chance and see what he's up to'."
"In a sense," he says, "it's the only film ever made about how to write a story."
That said, Carriere knows he could never teach young students about scriptwriting by using a film as unique as The Phantom of Liberty as a template. His workshop at the festival here will be conducted along more conventional lines. "The advice I give students who are just starting out and want to know how to develop a story – or at least get the starting point for it –– is: take a person or a group of people, make them desire something, and then introduce an obstacle to that desire," he says. "Some of the world's greatest stories have been built on these simple elements: the desire and the obstacle."
Adapting from book to film is a serious business, he says, because you have to know the language of film, which is very different from that of literature, or any other form. “When you're adapting a novel for the screen, you're looking for a hidden/invisible film within the pages of the book.” He talks about a scene from Jean Renoir's La Chienne: "A woman is on a bed, reading – she's using one of those paper-cutters people used to cut each new page while reading a book. Her lover enters, he knows she's been unfaithful to him; she puts the book down and starts talking to him. An edge enters their conversation. Just as things are getting tense, Renoir gives us the briefest shot of the paper-cutter lying on the bed, the light from the window reflecting on it. The camera is drawing the viewers' attention to something that the protagonists aren't even thinking about at this moment. But it's a way of introducing a new character – an element of danger, the possibility of murder – into the scene."
It's pure cinematographic language, says Carriere. No other medium can do something like this.
(I'm tempted to retort "what about the graphic novel?", but I think better of it.)