Friday 2 July 2021

In memoriam: Clare Peploe (Telegraph 30/06/21)

Clare Peploe, who has died aged 79, was a screenwriter and director who forged a career on the fringes of the mainstream, often working in tandem with her husband Bernardo Bertolucci, with whom she wrote La Luna (1979) and Besieged (1998).

An aficionado of European cinema from her student days, Peploe got her big break after she introduced herself to another Italian director, Michelangelo Antonioni, while he was shooting Blow-Up (1966) in London. Antonioni was so taken by Peploe’s intellectual curiosity that he hired her to help write the English dialogue for his first American feature Zabriskie Point (1970).

She met Bertolucci in the immediate wake of the director’s great succès de scandale Last Tango in Paris (1972), the pair first bonding over a shared love of the Jean-Luc Godard filmography. 

Their partnership was initially as much professional as it was personal. Peploe was hired as an assistant director on Bertolucci’s 1900 (1976) – a stunningly ambitious, five-hour political opus that required all available hands on its pumps – and then to co-write La Luna, an intimate yet confrontational drama about a mother (Jill Clayburgh) who initiates an incestuous relationship with her son in a bid to wean him off heroin.

By then, Peploe and Bertolucci were married, and husband was keen for wife to follow him into the director’s chair. “I was always giving ideas to other people because I didn’t think that I would actually be making movies,” Peploe admitted in a 1995 interview. “Bernardo got fed up with me and said, ‘Why don’t you direct yourself?’”

She made an auspicious start with Couples and Robbers (1981), a half-hour short in which Frances Low and a pre-fame Rik Mayall play newlyweds going on the lam; rather self-consciously influenced by successive New Waves, it was nevertheless nominated for both a BAFTA and an Academy Award.

Her feature debut was High Season (1987), an eccentric, FilmFour-backed romp that found ex-pat photographer Jacqueline Bisset criss-crossing with locals and tourists on the Greek isle of Rhodes. More commercial than her Bertolucci collaborations, it offered sun-drenched Chris Menges cinematography and a stellar supporting cast, including James Fox, Irene Papas and Kenneth Branagh in his first credited screen role. Critic Roger Ebert dubbed it “an example of a rare species: the intelligent silly movie.”

Though the film hardly lit up the box-office, it demonstrated that Peploe could originate and oversee her own material, without undue input from her spouse. On subsequent productions, she would go so far as to ban Bertolucci from set: “He makes people nervous! People are in awe of him. He knows it but thinks it’s silly and can't understand it.”

She was born in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania in 1942 to English parents, and spent her childhood shuttling between Kenya, the UK and Italy. Her younger brother Mark, born in Nairobi the following year, would go on to assist Antonioni on the writing of The Passenger (1975) and Bertolucci on The Last Emperor (1987), The Sheltering Sky (1990) and Little Buddha (1993).

Her love of cinema was fostered during trips with her mother to see Westerns, and expanded during her studies at the Sorbonne and the University of Perugia as the Sixties began. It was a period marked by a new experimentalism; arguably her later directorial career suffered from attempting something similarly searching within an ever more inflexible, commercially-minded industry.

Following High Season, Peploe did a nifty job on “Sauce for the Goose”, an especially twisty 1990 episode of the Patricia Highsmith-derived anthology series Chillers, featuring Ian McShane as a devilishly seductive crooner putting landlady Gwen Taylor in his sights. But big-screen work was harder to come by, and the projects she did complete misfired with the general public.

Rough Magic (1995), Peploe’s adaptation of the James Hadley Chase novel Miss Shumway Waves a Wand, boasted tantalising elements – a peachy Bridget Fonda as a runaway conjuror, a pre-Gladiator Russell Crowe as the investigator in pursuit – but slipped between generic stools, baffling onlookers and recouping barely a quarter-million of its budget. Even Ebert shrugged: “Maybe the project was so weird it was doomed from the start”.

Bertolucci, at least, kept the faith, recruiting Peploe to write his elegant chamber piece Besieged; he then produced The Triumph of Love (2001), Peploe’s final directorial credit. Updating Marivaux’s 18th century comedy with a postmodern playfulness, it filled its tried-and-tested roles with a crossdressing Mira Sorvino, Ben Kingsley and Fiona Shaw, but again drew mixed reviews before vanishing on release.

Thereafter, Peploe divided her time between Notting Hill and Rome, accompanying her ailing husband to festivals and speaking engagements, and proving essential to the restoration of Last Tango in Paris in 2018, the year of Bertolucci’s death from lung cancer.

In her later interviews, she expressed some bafflement with her own choices (“on the whole, I don’t go to comedies”) and a certain frustration with the wider industry: “It certainly is hard. Because I suppose [films like mine are] thought to be whimsical. I think maybe it’s why women directors sometimes have a hard time making movies, because it’s more to do with the subject matter than that they’re women.”

She is survived by her brother Mark.

Clare Peploe, born 1942, died June 23, 2021.

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