Obituary: Clare Peploe, director whose films were known for their quirky intelligence

Opera singer

Death: June 23, 2021.

CLARE Peploe, who died of lung cancer at the age of 79, was a filmmaker with serious intentions, but whose work was endowed with a light touch and quirky acting that kept her away from the mainstream. Her three feature films as screenwriter and director were playfully nuanced studies of the rules of attraction in extremis. Although too fun to be considered arthouse, they never really found the commercial hiding place of other romantic comedies.

From her first feature film, High Season (1987), to her last directorial film, The Triumph of Love (2001), she merged the influences of late 20th century European cinema with English sensibilities and American. The results remain a bizarrely smart business.

Peploe’s cinematic work first began with Michelangelo Antonioni, whom she met when the Italian director entered the London party scene while preparing his swinging existential thriller, Blow Up (1966).

Peploe went on to become one of five screenwriters credited on Zabriskie Point (1970), Antonioni’s elementary hippie fable, which attempted to explore some of the era’s counter-cultural disaffection among young people. She also introduced him to the music of Pink Floyd, which was used in some of the film’s key moments. As a couple, Peploe and Antonioni have been together for eight years.

Peploe had a similar effect on Bernardo Bertolucci, whom she met around the time her controversial Marlon Brando with Last Tango in Paris (1972) was causing a stir. She then worked with him as an assistant director on his epic historical drama, 1900 (1976) as well as on Novecento (1976). The couple married in 1978 and were together until Bertolucci passed away in 2018.

Peploe co-wrote La Luna (1979), about an opera singer who has an incestuous affair with her teenage son in an attempt to wean him from heroin. She also co-wrote Besieged (1998), about a composer who falls in love with his African housekeeper. When he says he will do anything for her, she asks him to get her husband out of prison. Peploe also worked on the film as an associate producer.

Among his own films, including Rough Magic (1995), American critic Roger Ebert best summed up his work in his review of High Season, which starred Jacqueline Bisset as an expatriate photographer in Greece. It was, he said, “an example of a rare species: the smart stupid movie.”

Clare Frances Katherine Peploe was born in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, to English parents, William Peploe, a government official who later became an art dealer and director of the Lefevre Gallery in London, and Clotilde (née Brewster), a painter. Peploe, her sister Cloe and her brother Mark grew up first in Kenya, then Florence, Italy, and finally London.

Peploe became captivated by the cinema as a child, visiting the cinema with her mother between school at St Clare’s in Oxford and London’s independent college, Westminster Tutors.

She fell in love with the work of leading European authors such as Jean-Luc Godard while studying French at the Sorbonne in Paris and Italian at the University of Perugia. In the early 1960s, his travels abroad rang with the rise of the New Wave, whose influences fueled his own work.

It was as evident in her directorial debut, Couples and Robbers (1981), as it was two decades later in The Triumph of Love. Couples and Robbers was a half-hour short film starring Frances Low and Rik Mayall as a newly married couple who became car thieves after a lackluster marriage. The film was nominated for both Bafta and Oscars, and set the tone for Peploe’s canon to come.

High Season, co-written with his brother Mark, followed. Mark had previously worked with Antonioni on the screenplay for The Passenger (1975), and would continue to work with Bertolucci on The Last Emperor (1987), The Sheltering Sky (1990) and Little Buddha (1993).

Between films, Peploe directed Sauce for the Goose (1990), which was part of Chillers, an anthology series of short story adaptations by Patricia Highsmith. It starred Ian McShane as a salon singer who incites a woman to murder her hotel husband, although it is not known whether for love or for money.

Rough Magic (1995) starred Bridget Fonda and Russell Crowe in an adaptation of James Hadley Chase’s novel, Miss Shumway Waves a Wand. Set in the 1950s, Peploe’s film saw Fonda play an apprentice conjurer, who travels to Mexico to escape her politician fiance, and meets a Mayan shaman who gives him true magical powers. What initially looks like the stuff of a romantic screw-black leaps into more fantastic, if at times eminently silly, waters.

Peploe’s last work, The Triumph of Love, was an 18th-century romantic comedy based on Pierre de Marivaux’s 1732 play of the same name. It starred Mira Sorvino and Ben Kingsley and was produced by Bertolucci. Sorvino played the daughter of a usurper of the throne who falls in love with the rightful heir.

Despite the film’s classic roots, Peploe continued to have stylistically fun with the original material, with hand-held cameras and jump cuts giving a consciously modern take on Godard-inspired procedures. Much more than a simple tribute, the fusion of French film traditions revealed a witty, sometimes unrecognized talent whose work deserves closer examination.

She is survived by her brother Mark.