Monday, July 5, 2021

Clare Peploe: All for Love

Mira Sorvino and Jay Rodan in The Triumph of Love (2001).

One can do almost anything for love,” the aging art historian Basil Sharp (Sebastian Shaw) tells his dearest friend, the émigré English photographer Katherine (Jacqueline Bisset), near the end of Clare Peploe’s 1987 film High Season. Katherine is living on a Greek island with her thirteen-year-old daughter Chloe (Ruby Baker), but she’s broke and in danger of losing her house. Her one chance of achieving solvency is to sell a vase Sharpie gave her some years ago to a Greco-English art dealer, Konstantinis (Robert Stephens), who knows he can sell it at an exorbitant price; the trick is to get it out of Greece, which has famously declared a moratorium on the removal of national treasures. So Katherine begs Sharpie to betray his professional ethics and certify the vase a fake. The line I’ve quoted above is his justification for agreeing to do so – though, as with everything else in this vibrant, hilarious farce (which Peploe wrote with her brother Mark), there’s more to it than meets the eye.

“One can do almost anything for love” seems to me to be an apt epigraph for a tribute to Peploe, who died on June 23, at seventy-eight or seventy-nine (she was born in 1942, but the month and day remain undisclosed). In the wildly unconventional screwball comedy Rough Magic (1997) a magician named Myra Shumway (Bridget Fonda, in her best screen performance) slips out of her engagement to a politician (D.W. Moffett) and falls for the man her fiancé has hired to tail her (Russell Crowe). First she ingests a potion given to her by a Mexican witch doctor that makes her feel, she tells him, as if it had filled in the heretofore empty space between her heart and her head. When they make love, they literally float through the air.

In The Triumph of Love (2002), Peploe’s film of the 1732 high comedy by the French playwright Marivaux, a conscience-stricken princess (Mira Sorvino, in her best performance) whose father usurped the throne she now occupies and sent the rightful king to die in prison, falls in love with the true heir, Agis (Jay Rodan). Agis was smuggled out of prison as a baby after his mother died in childbirth and has been raised by a philosopher named Hermocrates (Ben Kingsley) and his sister Léontine (Fiona Shaw) on an isolated rural estate. In addition to teaching Agis to view the princess, whom he’s never seen, as his bitterest enemy, Hermocrates has trained the boy’s mind and his body but outlawed love. Once she gets a glimpse of Agis, swimming naked in a stream, the princess becomes so determined to win that love he’s not supposed to acknowledge that she dons drag and woos both Léontine and Hermocrates (who has seen through her disguise) in order to gain access to the object of her adoration.

James Fox and Jacqueline Bisset in High Season (1987).

And in Besieged (1998), which Peploe co-wrote with her husband Bernardo Bertolucci and he directed, an English composer and piano teacher named Jason Kinsky (David Thewlis) living in Rome falls for his African housekeeper, Shandurai (Thandie Newton). She emigrated to become a medical student after her husband, a schoolteacher, was thrown in prison for his politics. When Kinsky declares his love for Shandurai and begs her to marry him, swearing there’s nothing in the world he wouldn’t do for her, she blows up at him and tells him to get her husband released. And, in an extraordinary act of selfless devotion, he does, selling everything in his flat, including his piano, presumably to bribe the officials.

Peploe is virtually unknown, and her output was sparse. In her late twenties she was one of five screenwriters (including the director) on Michelangelo Antonioni’s notorious Zabriskie Point, and she co-wrote her husband’s Luna – not exactly one of his masterpieces – almost a decade later. As a director she made only three features, and her only subsequent screenplay aside from her own movies was Besieged. (Bertolucci and Marilyn Goldin collaborated with her on the adaptation of The Triumph of Love.) Yet these are marvelous movies. High Season is an astonishingly light-handed farce – you can hardly believe it’s a directorial debut – and a sensuous sexual roundelay that also suggests, in its quirky satirical tone and effervescent tossing away of audience expectations, a combination of a British comedy from the fifties and the most memorable efforts of the Scottish filmmaker Bill Forsyth (Local Hero and Comfort and Joy, both released just a few years earlier). It has a dream cast: James Fox, Kenneth Branagh, Lesley Manville, Paris Tselios and the formidable Irene Papas all have major roles in it. Shot by Chris Menges, it looks sumptuous, as does The Triumph of Love (shot, like Besieged, by Fabio Cianchetti). The Triumph of Love is one of the great stage-to-screen triumphs, faithful to the wonderful Marivaux comedy, with its whiff of Shakespearean romantic comedy – especially Love’s Labor’s Lost but also Twelfth Night and As You Like It – but decorated with postmodern flourishes that register like devices from a French or Italian New Wave picture.

Peploe learned from her husband how to put highly sophisticated filmmaking technique to work in the service of romanticism. She married Bertolucci in 1978; he died shortly before they got to celebrate their fortieth wedding anniversary. You can’t watch these movies – especially, of course, Besieged (which I think is his most underrated movie) – without thinking of the great romance behind the camera.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.


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