Not Mrs. What’s His Name

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“I saw this production in London,” Clare Peploe says of a stage version of “The Triumph of Love” mounted two years ago. “It was the last day, and I thought, ‘I’m not able to tell any of my friends to go and see it.’ It’s so extraordinary! So I had to make a film of it.”

Soon afterward, Peploe, known for directing two romantic comedies of expatriates washed up on exotic shores (“High Season” and “Rough Magic”), brought it up as a possible project with her husband, Bernardo Bertolucci. He just happened to be looking for something that could be shot in Italy--the Italian government was offering special funding if he did so. That wasn’t too difficult--the 18th century French play by Pierre Marivaux was easily relocated, at least physically, to Tuscany, though it remains a mannered set piece of the French Enlightenment.

Peploe was especially attracted to the main character, the beautiful young Princess (Mira Sorvino), who willfully schemes her way into the affections of her chosen love object, Agis (Jay Rodan), and, in the process, upends the rational household in which he resides. “I find it very fast and funny and cerebral,” says Peploe, in her late 50s, during a visit to Los Angeles. The filmmaker, a lean, handsome woman with medium-length blond hair, is one to choose her words carefully, although every so often she reveals a surprising candor.


“I thought the main character a very modern character, the way she negotiates emotions, feelings, and her political strategy--like a career thing,” Peploe says. “I found it had some parallels with young women nowadays. She’s a very, very strong character and has to be very focused and has to be very smart in dealing with situations.” The film opened Wednesday in Los Angeles and New York to mixed reviews and will get a limited release in other cities in the next few weeks.

With Peploe’s background, the mix and match of time and place was more natural than incongruous. Born in Tanzania, she was raised in Kenya, then England and Italy. Her parents were inclined toward the arts--her father an art dealer and her mother a painter.

As a child, she was impressed by the movies, though for a long time she saw only one genre, the American western. “I’d only seen westerns, which I loved,” she recalls. “My mother took me to westerns because they had beautiful landscapes.” Later, when she was doing pre-university study at Oxford, older friends introduced her to French New Wave and American film noir. She was struck by “this other language, another way of filmmaking.”

Instead of staying in England, Peploe went to study in France and Italy. She got into the film business “by being friends with filmmakers in Italy, which was always my second country.” In 1969, she got a job with Michelangelo Antonioni as “the umpteenth assistant” for a film about rebellious youth in the United States, “Zabriskie Point,” now a cult classic. Because she knew English and had traveled in the United States, Peploe was thought an asset to the production and was later given a screenplay credit--along with Sam Shepard and three others--although today she pooh-poohs that. “I wasn’t really a writer on it, I was a researcher on it.”

In 1970, she met Bertolucci at a screening of his film “The Spider’s Stratagem,” and in 1977, she served as his assistant on “1900.” The two married in 1979, and she’s continued to be his sometime collaborator, including screenwriter and associate producer for the 1998 well-received art-house film “Besieged.”

A 1981 Short Film and Then a Feature

She became a director through unusual circumstances. “I was almost forced into it,” she says with a laugh. “I was always giving advice. I think Bernardo got fed up with me, and he said, ‘Why don’t you just direct a film yourself?’”


So she did. In 1981, she made a 30-minute short, “Couples and Robbers,” which earned Oscar and British Academy nominations. Six years later, she made her first feature, “High Season,” about the shenanigans of British expatriates on a Greek island overrun by mass tourism. The film mixed surrealism and film noir--and, to some critics, not particularly successfully.

But she wasn’t deterred.

She made “Rough Magic” (1995) with Bridget Fonda and Russell Crowe, in which Fonda plays an American in search of a secret elixir from a Mexican shaman and Crowe a tough-talking gumshoe put on her trail by her jilted fiance.

Peploe also co-wrote “Besieged,” directed by Bertolucci. She had fallen in love with the original story, James Lasdun’s “The Siege,” and failing in her own efforts to get the financing to make it into a movie, she encouraged her husband to take on this sweet love story--a departure from his usual grim take on love and sex (witness “Last Tango in Paris”). “It was quite liberating for him to do that,” she says. In “Besieged,” a British expatriate (David Thewlis) living in Rome falls for his housekeeper, an African medical student (Thandie Newton), and ends up giving nearly everything for her.

As a filmmaker, Peploe recognizes that being married to an internationally acclaimed director is a mixed blessing. In the past, she has rued the fact that since she is married to Bertolucci, people assume that she has ready access to production funding--not true. However, with “Triumph of Love,” her husband produced the $4.5-million film and helped get the Italian government to partially finance it.

Meeting in Paris, ‘Mira Seduced Me’

Casting the role of the Princess was, of course, key. It called for a young actress who could convincingly convey cocky charm and warmheartedness. Early on, Peploe had a meeting with Sorvino--they met at a Paris cafe. “Mira seduced me, practically,” says Peploe, smiling. “She was so convincing and her accent so flawless.”

Sorvino had to assume a British accent to go with that of other major cast members, including the stern brother-sister pair the Princess must win over. Ben Kingsley was cast as the philosopher Hermocrates, and Fiona Shaw as the scientific Leontine.


“I take great care about getting the right cast so that I don’t have to waste time having to go over and make someone understand how to do something,” says Peploe. “The amount of ideas my actors give me--great ideas!” Kingsley, for example, was the one who suggested that Hermocrates, despite his ascetic principles, was really quite vain, so he should be dressed in richly colorful costumes.

Kingsley said he admired Peploe’s “pure intuitive enthusiasm for the story she’s telling.” Her method, he says, was to use “tiny little adjustments and suggestions, not even telling you what to do next. For the next take you may be even closer to what you need at that point in the story.”

On the other hand, working with her husband as producer wasn’t always easy for Peploe. “He was around a lot, getting terribly anxious,” she recalls. As a good producer, he fretted about schedules and budgets and even elements that might not go over with a general audience. “Like these modern theater moments, Bernardo was a little worried as a producer, but as a director he loved them,” she says. “So I appealed to that side of him.”

Though the form of the story is a farce--and the film takes glee in its theatricality--Peploe believes in its underlying, more serious message. “Really, what the story is saying is that if you haven’t really experienced love, you can’t understand human nature,” she says. “No matter how humiliating or painful or ridiculous that can be.”