Luis Buñuel Remembered by Jean-Claude Carrière


    At four o'clock one afternoon Luis Buñuel decided that he would make no more films. We were staying in the spa at San Jose Purua in southwest Mexico where, for more than twenty years, Buñuel had gone to write his scripts. It is a semitropical paradise set in a green canyon — a bit too hot, in truth, for Buñuel liked rain, fog, the north. The screenplay we were working on was for a film to be called A Sumptuous Ceremony, in homage to Andre Breton, who defined eroticism as "a sumptuous ceremony in an underground passage." From the outset our watchwords were "terror" and "eroticism." We imagined a young girl in a prison cell receiving a visit from a phantom bishop; a trap door led to an underground passageway and to a boat filled with explosives for blowing up the Louvre museum.

    The script was never finished. Buñuel had barely arrived in San Jose Purua when he felt unwell, ill at ease (this was 1979 and Luis, who always said he was "born with the century," was therefore seventy-nine years old). He spoke of some "menace," and one could tell that he was worried about something. At four o'clock in the afternoon he announced that his life as a filmmaker was over. That same night we returned to Mexico City.
    When today I amuse myself by making useless calculations, I realize that Buñuel and I shared more than two thousand meals together and that on more than fifteen hundred occasions he knocked on my door, notes in hand, ready to begin work. I'm not even counting the walks, the drinks, the films we watched together, the film festivals.
    We met for the first time at the Cannes Film Festival, in 1963. Buñuel was looking for a French scriptwriter, preferably young, as I was, to collaborate on the adaptation of Mirbeau's novel Diary of a Chambermaid. The producer, Serge Silberman (who was to become our faithful collaborator), sent me to Cannes along with several other writers. Buñuel saw one of us, each day, at his hotel. I was nervous and arrived punctually; Buñuel received me with characteristic kindness, escorted me to a table in the dining room, sat me down, and said, "Do you drink wine?" I realized that this was not a casual remark but rather something really important. I answered — truthfully — that not only did I drink wine but made it as well, since I come from a family of wine growers. Buñuel's face lit up, and he sent the wine steward off for two bottles of Pradel. Several weeks later I went to join him in Madrid and our collaboration began.

A gathering in Los Angeles, 1972: (from left to right standing) Robert Mulligan, William Wyler,
George Cukor, Robert Wise, Jean-Claude Carrière, Serge Silberman;
(seated) Billy Wilder, George Stevens, Buñuel, Alfred Hitchcock, Rouben Mamoulian.

    We wrote nine scripts together. Buñuel made six into films: Diary of a Chambermaid, Belle de Jour, The Milky Way, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Phantom of Liberty, and That Obscure Object of Desire. One of the other scripts, an adaptation of The Monk by Matthew Gregory Lewis, had to be abandoned for financial reasons and was eventually filmed by Ado Kyrou. Buñuel and I also wrote an adaptation of Huysman's Against the Grain, but Luis finally concluded that the project was "too difficult." And finally there was A Sumptuous Ceremony.
    When it became clear on that sad afternoon that Luis would never make another film, I returned to Europe. Luis — a Mexican citizen for over thirty years and the owner of a house in Mexico City — settled, or tried to settle, into an inactive life of contemplation, devoting himself to reading newspapers, drinking cocktails, taking walks, and conversing with friends, but after a few months he let me know that he was bored.
    It so happened that during the years I had spent in Buñuel's company — looking at him, listening to him speak, hearing him tell the story of his long eventful life, which spanned a number of cultures — I had taken notes, written down anecdotes and details that I hoped would one day make a book. I often threatened him with this possibility. "After your death, Luis, if you die before I do, I'll write a book about you." "All right," he would reply, "as long as it is full of lies."
    In 1980 in Mexico, I suggested that since he was alive and bored we write a book about him together. His first response was to refuse, saying loftily that nowadays even butlers publish their memoirs. "I've always refused to talk about myself," he told me. "I've never made even the briefest comments about my films and I detest that kind of gloss. It's absolutely out of the question." I went back to Paris. He went back to his boredom.
    Buñuel was a man of a number of contradictions, any one of which would paralyze an ordinary man but which he endured with grace. For example, he was imbued with Catholic culture and at the same time was determinedly antireligious. He was a subversive filmmaker and yet led a very bourgeois life. He was very Spanish and completely international. He was an instinctive scriptwriter, a surrealist, while still being very concerned with structure, plot development, order. He was also a man of action haunted by the specter of the contemplative life.
    When it became clear from Buñuel's letters that he was looking for something to do, I found an excuse to go to Mexico. I talked casually to him about the book and proposed not a biography in the strict sense but rather a sort of flitting narrative similar to the Spanish picaresque novel Lazarillo de Tormes or the very French Gil Blas, in which a young man takes to the road in search of adventure and his destiny. Luis had always had a strong taste for this sort of book. He favored plots, and was a storyteller with a highly developed imagination. During all the years of our collaboration, we had one ritual: every evening at the sacred cocktail hour Luis would isolate himself in the calm semidarkness of a bar, savor a dry martini, and allow himself to be taken over by images. When I went to collect him he was obliged to tell me some sort of story, the one he had daydreamed while contemplating his cocktail.
    He said often that imagination is a muscle and that one can train it as one can the memory.
    To help him decide about the book, I wrote a chapter myself that concerned bars, alcohol, tobacco — the pleasures of the here and now. I wrote in the first person, saying "I, Buñuel," and attempted to find the rhythm of his sentences, his tone of voice, and his particular vocabulary. When he read this chapter he told me he had the impression of having written it himself. Several years before we had worked together on the story of his childhood in the province of Aragon for a Spanish magazine, and now we dug up these notes and started on the new project.

Luis Buñuel by Salvador Dali

    The work of writing the book resembled collaborating on a script except that this time we knew the story from the outset. Every morning at the same time (Buñuel was always a stickler for punctuality) we met at his house for a three-hour work session during which I would ask questions and take notes at the stand up desk. During the afternoons and evenings, in my hotel room, I would try to give some form to these notes and then in the morning I would photocopy what I had written, and bring the text to Luis. We would read it over together and go on.
    The structure of the book became clear quickly. We were in fact writing a picaresque novel, "The Admirable and Adventurous Life of Luis Buñuel," or, imitating Sterne, "The Life and Opinions of Luis Buñuel." We presented his life in pieces — chapters which described his education in Spain, his arrival in France and his crucial involvement with the surrealists, his discovery of Hollywood, the move to Mexico after World War II, and the return to Europe. It was a life full of movement in every sense, studded with Buñuel's extraordinary films, but also full of halts, of silences that almost made it seem as if he were dead. During an eighteen-year period, from 1932 to 1950, one heard nothing of Luis Buñuel. What became of the brilliant and aggressive author of Un Chien Andalou and L'age d'or? Why had he disappeared? Then all of a sudden in 1951 the Cannes Film Festival showed Los Olvidados. Buñuel had returned, alive and well at fifty.

Carlos Saura and Jean-Claude Carrière filming Buñuel y la Mesa del Rey Salomón
(Buñuel and King Solomon's Table), a unique dedication to Buñuel.

    In addition of the biographical elements, the encounters, the humorous role of chance, we included chapters in which Buñuel, sitting for a moment in the shade of a tree or at the edge of a road, speaks to us of what he cared about the most — of alcohol, of course, but also of dreams, of women, of fate, of death. Work on some chapters went quickly and was fun. Others took up a lot of time and required successive drafts. Such was the case, for example, with the section concerning the Spanish Civil War. I had decided to try, for once, to really understand something, and I had a witness both living and placid. It took us several weeks to finish this chapter. We didn't use a single document, relying — even at the risk of making mistakes of fact — entirely on Luis's memory. But as he himself explained in the book, he was not writing history. He saw the century in his own particular way, with his preferences, his blank spots, his errors — with his memory.
    Luis waited for death for a long time, like a good Spaniard, and when he died he was ready. His relationship with death was like that one has with a woman. He felt the love, hate, tenderness, ironical detachment of a long relationship, and he didn't want to miss the last encounter, the moment of union. "I hope I will die alive," he told me. At the end it was as he had wished. His last words were "I'm dying."
    He took with him the love of those who knew him.
    I think we already know what we will retain of him.