Bertolucci's better half

Clare Peploe, one of film's finest female directors, talks about her rare collaboration with husband Bernardo Bertolucci on his first real love story.


Michael Sragow
June 17, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

No other writer-director is more deft at being daft than Clare
Peploe. In her seductively enchanting debut film, "High Season" (1988), and in
her far-out comic fantasy "Rough Magic" (1995), she uses exotic locales -- the
Greek island of Rhodes in the first film, the Mayan heartland in the second
-- to catalyze rowdy mystery and lovemaking. Her films are salutes to
silliness; they combine humor and wit in graceful whirligigs. They also
create climates in which petty emotions fall away in a sensuous acceptance of
life. Her movies celebrate the thrill of clearing your mind, of letting go.

So does Bernardo Bertolucci's tonic and tender new picture, "Besieged" -- and Bertolucci himself has rightly, proudly noted that much of the credit should go to Peploe, his wife, who found the original story (James Lasdun's
"The Siege"), co-wrote the adaptation and consulted daily on the filmmaking.
(She's listed as co-writer and associate producer.) With a unique, plangent
irony, the movie charts the growing bond between an African political exile (Thandie Newton) working as a housekeeper in Rome and her employer, a
reclusive British composer and pianist (David Thewlis).

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With two distinctive achievements of her own behind her, what led Peploe to collaborate with her husband on a Bertolucci-directed movie? "This
was a very particular case," she told me recently. "I read the story 10
years ago and completely fell in love with it. I couldn't convince anyone it
was a film. But when Bernardo was looking for something to do for television,
I suggested this. I thought it would be nice for him to make a love story -- in his movies, sex is usually connected with death and despair."

In Lasdun's story, the heroine is a South American in London. When the
financial arrangements demanded an Italian location, the filmmakers retained
the hero's name, Mr. Kinsky, and his English nationality. But they
transformed the woman into an African named Shandurai. This maintained the story's power dynamic and was aesthetically piercing, since the rhythm of the African woman's speech and the style of her movements contrast thrillingly with the sights and sounds inside and out of Kinsky's ornate house. And with the way Bertolucci and Peploe modulated Lasdun's story, knocking a few years off of the hero's age, Shandurai's taste for hard-driving African-flavored pop infiltrates and energizes Kinsky's classical music-making.

The situation is fraught with political and emotional tension. Shandurai assumes that a man living on his own and playing the piano all day
must be a wealthy colonialist. And Peploe knew that in the film (as in the story), having Shandurai be his housekeeper would prove a sure-fire source of agitation: "No friend knows as much as a cleaner does, who has actually taken off your linens and washed your bedclothes and observed
your most intimate habits. My view is that Kinsky, at the start, has been traumatized by women; he thinks that Shandurai is no threat because she's a lodger. But he's wrong. Even when he declares his love, he doesn't know how overwhelmed he is."

Shandurai angrily rebuffs him, saying that if he wants to do anything for her, he can get her husband out of jail. Astonishingly, Kinsky
starts selling off his precious art and artifacts to buy the husband's safety and release. "There's no colonial thing at all of Kinsky trying to help a
black woman," says Peploe. "He's doing it for Shandurai. If she speaks to him
in a polite, servile way, that's to keep her distance." It's an inspired
stroke to make her a medical student. Shandurai comes off as the sort of
ultra-capable person who would find an eccentric artist like Kinsky
puzzling -- then irritating -- and finally seductive. "And he does something
so amazing that all the emotions she has suppressed bubble up. She doesn't even know that she's in love with him; that overtakes her in a drunken state.
It might still be too much for her to accept. We leave it up to the audience to write the end."

Talking to Peploe on the phone from her home in Italy, I found myself laughing in appreciation, not at bon mots or jokes, but at her astounding
poise while describing a remarkable life. "Besieged" connects directly to Peploe's own experience of being a passionate outsider wherever she's lived -- as do "High Season" and "Rough Magic," which deserve to be rediscovered in
the wake of this film's critical success.

Peploe was born in Tanzania, but moved immediately to Kenya, where she spent four and a half years before her family returned to Europe. Swahili was
her first language. She explains: "My parents were in Greece when World War II broke out. They were really an odd couple of aesthetes, devoted to
beautiful landscapes and reading. When war came, they couldn't get back to England; the British government sent them to Cyprus, then to Palestine and then to East Africa, where my father had a British civil service job, and I was born."

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There was nothing Hemingway-esque about Peploe's time on what was then called the Dark Continent: "My parents weren't at all sporty. My mother was a
painter. She came from a bohemian family -- they were artistic and they had some money. Her mother was a painter, too, and her grandfather was a sculptor. My father was Scottish, had no money, but was the son of a famous
painter in Scotland, Sam Peploe [known as S.J. Peploe]. He was part of a
group called the Colorists, who were almost the equivalent of French
impressionists, except Scottish.

"My parents weren't as happy as I was in Africa. We lived in the middle of a game reserve lent to my father by a strange character, who was a
French hunter and biologist. My mother missed the Mediterranean light, which she liked for painting, and they both missed the European culture. But it was bliss for a child. I had no toys, but I don't think I missed any toys -- I had millipedes to play ball with. I have great early memories of early
childhood. Afterward, I had this longing for Africa, mal d'Afrique -- the
disease of people who feel as if Africa were paradise lost." Even her departure from Africa was a grand adventure: "We went on a boat from Lake
Victoria to Alexandria. It was a paddle-steamer on the Nile, and it took a month."

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Peploe's mother was half-American, half-German; her grandparents (and her great-grandparents) were expatriates. "They all lived in Florence; they
had this big house my great-grandfather had bought, where my mother and grandmother were born. And we still have it." So after the war, she went from
Swahili to Italian. The family stayed in Florence for a year and a half, she says; "Then my father began to work for a private gallery in London. I grew up in England, but Italy became the second country in my life. I used to go there
every summer and I loved it. But I also loved London, a cosmopolitan city with so many different kinds of lives being led in it. Being there is a kind of drug that I need -- Bernardo and I still go back and forth."

The Peploes never had a television. At age 17, Clare discovered cinema thanks to some older friends -- Oxford students, including future academic stars like Peter Wollen and Laura Mulvey -- who turned her on to the nouvelle vague. When her pals and mentors left Oxford, Peploe decided
against taking the entrance exam and instead studied French and Italian at
the Sorbonne and Purgia. While zigzagging between European capitals, she kept going to movies and feeding her burning habit for Jean-Luc Godard ("I'm no longer
such a Godard fan now, but I was for many years"). In the late '60s, Peploe
met Michelangelo Antonioni in London. As a hardy traveler who was fluent in Italian and
familiar with America -- at least more familiar than Antonioni was -- Peploe
ended up co-writing "Zabriskie Point" and staying with the film throughout production.

Featuring a desert love-in and an apocalypse-now climax, this art-house version of a '60s youth film was an unruly baptism: "A difficult
film, a political film. There were spies on the set, and I don't mean studio spies. In fact, the film was subpoenaed because we had a sequence with Kathleen Cleaver and a revolutionary group. At the time there was great nervousness in the States about political activity and organizations like the Weathermen." But Peploe thinks that this sort of baptism was not atypical for the '60s. "Getting into film wasn't so much about professional training then. Films were much more personal, and had more of a personal signature."

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Peploe crossed paths with Bertolucci in 1970, at a screening of his Godard-like memory film, "The Spider's Stratagem": "It remains one of my
favorite films of Bernardo's. We met a couple of times later and got on incredibly well because we both had this passion for Godard. We met again
after 'Last Tango' and have been together ever since." She assisted him on "Novecento (1900)" in 1975 and "Luna" in 1978 (she also shares script
credit). But she hadn't yet come up with a consuming idea for her own feature.

"High Season" came about, says Peploe, "because I took Bernardo to Greece. He'd never been there; I used to go there as a child with my mother.
She hated tourism and loved to paint, so she always would take us to the most remote places -- primitive, with no running water and no electricity, but also, always, beautiful. As a child I couldn't help longing for the presence
of other children or popular music. But in fact that life got into my blood.

"When I went back with Bernardo, and took to him Lindos in Rhodes, a small
village with an ancient Greek monument on top, it was absolutely overrun by tourists. And it was so different from the Greece I had known, that I was
horrified. At the same time, I couldn't bear my own horror, because it was a bit like my mother's. I thought it was appalling that I was reacting like this. I realized that I was like a cultural colonialist, that I was reacting as if these smells, this light, were mine. I regretted that people weren't getting around on donkeys. And obviously this was terrible on my part, because the
local people were pleased to have tourism. So I saw the germ of characters and situations I could build on. It was a huge conflict for me -- on the one
hand I was happy for the locals, and on other hand I felt this village was being ruined for me."

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In a script co-written with her brother Mark, Peploe explored her conflict romantically and seriocomically, conjuring a madcap panoply of
artists, hustlers and spies -- including Jacqueline Bisset as an island photographer, James Fox as her sculptor ex-husband, Irene Papas as Rhodes'
self-appointed cultural defender, Kenneth Branagh as a secret agent and Sebastian Shaw as a suave old arbiter of art named Sharp -- an homage to
Anthony Blunt, the noted art historian and keeper of the queen's collection who was vilified for passing secrets to the Soviets during World War II.
Peploe had been shocked by the way Thatcherite England viewed Blunt's past deeds through the prism of the Conservative present; "High Season" stemmed
from Peploe viewing present-day Greece through the eyes of her own past. All the characters in "High Season" were, she says, "people that I knew or had
strong feelings about. Irene Papas in that film was a bit like my mother, in her hatred for all foreigners."

"Rough Magic" began when Peploe read James Hadley Chase's bizarre piece of pulp fiction "Miss Shumway Waves a Wand" and found it irresistibly
"ridiculous and funny. It starts in classical film noir style, then takes an absurd twist when a man is turned into a sausage. It's as if the writer had
passed out drunk and didn't remember what he'd written when he recovered." For Peploe, it was a chance to do a period piece with attitude, pitting
supposedly rational and forward-looking Establishment hypocrites of the 1950s against a trio of confused questers for love and sorcery: a Bogart-cynical reporter (Russell Crowe), an L.A. magician's assistant named Myra (Bridget
Fonda) and a British quack (Jim Broadbent) who persuades them to join him on a search for a mind-blowing Indian elixir deep in the Mexican wilds.

"I thought opposing these two perceptions of life went with the period," says Peploe. "Postwar America was so successful: It had won the war,
even though it had won by dropping the bomb, while Europe was destroyed. There was a fantastic optimism about science, and that led to a simplistic belief that you could view everything in a scientific way, even people. A real man was a real man and a woman was 'the little woman.' Which somehow doesn't correspond with the mess that human beings are. In the film, the other kind of magic represents all the mysterious things that we can't know about, much less understand. But I didn't want the film to be 'New Age.' The book wasn't New Age. It was funny -- also trite, with typical macho dialogue of that period -- and also ludicrous, with one thing happening after another.

"I altered it a great deal. For example, I turned the Indian magician from a man to a woman, so that Myra meeting her would be a form of self-discovery -- it's a phony expression, but she does 'find herself.' What really changed my feeling about the story was a trip I took to Guatemala. As soon as I arrived I knew that I had to shoot the film there -- it was like Mexico in the '50s, completely of another time.

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"In one village I visited they worship a man called Maximon. Later I was told that he was the conqueror of Guatemala and also a Judas Iscariot -- a
terrible person who everyone hated. So they cut off his legs. But when they did there were earthquakes and all sorts of natural disasters, so they
decided to worship him instead." She went to see an idol of Maximon and, as instructed, brought along booze and cigarettes. "I entered this tiny hut --
you had to lower your head to go inside -- and there was Maximon, a wooden man with no legs dressed in a suit, sitting in a chair, with a tie and a hat. I gave the cigarettes to the man who looked after him. He took the booze, too, and poured it down Maximon's 'throat' -- there must have been some tube in there that collected it. Then we smoked a cigarette while a pregnant woman
prayed.

"It was very funny, but also incredibly touching. I saw how the idea of faith was so important. I'm not a religious person, I don't believe in magic, but I see the point of faith. It made me think of magic being something much more ethnic than I'd realized, much more related to a place -- and therefore
deeper, not merely amusing. At the same time, what I like about the film is that Myra, once she gets her powers, uses them in such an un-sublime way."
"Rough Magic," like "High Season," became a beguiling set of variations on stability and change, loyalty and morality -- in love, in friendship and in
culture.

Of course, "Besieged" does too. But this film is less antic than oneiric; it has the tug and flow of a dream. Peploe and Bertolucci hoped to
establish a psychic intimacy between the audience and the characters, so that "different gestures and textures would slowly build up into a story." The
most haunting sound -- an incantatory wail -- emanates from a Kenyan storyteller who seems (without subtitles) to comment on the action: "He sings in Luo, not Swahili, and what he sings is a bit of a mystery to us, too. In one song he brings in the names of all these African countries. He is the connection to a much more archaic Africa than the Africa we see at the beginning of the film -- an Africa completely fucked up by corruption, by
dictatorship, by the West, by modern life."


Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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