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December 13, 2004

Philippe de Broca
Director who cut his teeth on some of the Nouvelle Vague's defining statements before hitting comic paydirt in his own right
THE FRENCH film director Philippe de Broca came of age just as the Nouvelle Vague was asserting its credentials as the artistic future of French cinema. He even won his spurs as assistant on some of that movement’s founding statements. But if de Broca’s own work shared the energy of his more avant-garde contemporaries, it was channelled into films that combined popular comedy and romance, putting a modern and Hollywoodian twist on familiar genres. At his best, he offered a mixture of charm and emotional truth, wackiness and elegance.

Philippe de Broca de Ferrussac was born in Paris on March 15, 1933, into a family of what he described as “Bohemian aristocrats”. His grandfather was a painter, his father a photographer. Philippe took the next step and moved on to the moving image, his teenage passion for films leading him to enrol at the Ecole Louis Lumière. At 19, a qualified cameraman, he took a 16mm camera on the Citroën-Bosh-Lavalette expedition to Africa and then continued his travels on his own, selling the resulting reels to Disney on his return. National service involved his working for the French army film unit in Algeria, amid the first stirrings of the war of independence.

Back in civilian life, he moved on from newsreel reporting and became assistant director to Henri Decoin, a skilled and commercially successful maker of adventures and comedies with strong American connections. Still, it looked as if de Broca was heading towards a rejection of this workmanlike cinéma de papa as he began second-directing for Georges Lacombe and, above all, François Truffaut and Claude Chabrol.

For Truffaut, he helped to make Les 400 Coups (The Four Hundred Blows), and for Chabrol, three films including the equally emblematic Le Beau Serge (Handsome Serge). But the earnestness of these Young Turks was not for him. As Jean-Paul Rappeneau, who helped to script one of his great hits, later recalled: “He suffered from the fact that these films, if very interesting, were not very funny. He wanted to add his own sense of fantasy.” That, and a touch of classicism.

This he began to do in 1959 with his first film as director, Les Jeux de l'amour, a very modern revisiting of the Marivaux play made with a young actor he had seen in the theatre, Jean-Pierre Cassel. Chabrol produced. The director and lead man followed up in 1960 with the mischievously humorous Le Farceur (The Joker), and again in 1961 with the screwball L’Amant de cinq jours (Five-Day Lover).

Cassel was now something of a star, and de Broca had garnered favourable reviews for these three comedies which, as the film critic David Thomson observed, “never allowed bedroom frolics or adulterous intrigue to lose sight of emotional reality”.

De Broca’s next film, Cartouche (1962), was a smash hit. Starring yet another Nouvelle Vague icon, Jean-Paul Belmondo, with illustrious support including Claudia Cardinale and Jean Rochefort, this cloak-and-dagger life of the eponymous bandit offered plenty of high jinks and laughs, an appealing mix of seduction, skirmishing and lawlessness wrapped up in a sparkling but reassuring directorial style. The partnership went on to even greater heights of success two years later with L’Homme de Rio (That Man from Rio, 1964), in which Belmondo plays a French air force pilot on a week-long leave in Paris. There his girlfriend (Françoise Dorléac), the daughter of an anthropologist, is kidnapped by South American Indians who suspect her of knowing the whereabouts of some statues that will help them to find a treasure. The sequence of wacky adventures that ensue won de Broca (and Rappeneau, his collaborator) a best screenplay nomination at the Oscars. In France, the film was frequently described as the best ever film adaptation of Tintin. The next de Broca/Belmondo offering, Les Tribulations d’un Chinois en Chine (1965) was loosely based on a Jules Verne story, but for all its twists and turns lacked the freshness of L’Homme de Rio.

Le Roi de cœur (King of Hearts, 1966) took de Broca in a new, more personal direction. With an impressive cast featuring Alan Bates, Pierre Brasseur and Jean-Claude Brialy, the film is a lighthearted fable set during the First World War, in which a Scottish private (Bates) finds himself mixing with the inhabitants of a French insane asylum in order to avoid the German rearguard. The film, one of de Broca’s favourites, was a critical and popular failure in France, where it was misunderstood and criticised for heavy-handedness. Still, it managed to tap into a vein of feeling in the US, where its release coincided with the rising of opposition to the Vietnam War.

From Le Diable par la queue (1968), with Yves Montand, Jean Rochefort and a host of other fine comedy actors, to Le Magnifique (1973), a James Bond spoof starring Belmondo, de Broca enjoyed a string of hits in the comic vein he had made his own. And while L’Incorrigible (1975) led to a 25-year break with Belmondo, who was angered to see that much of his hamming had been edited out from the final product, de Broca continued to work successfully into the late 1970s with top actors such as Marlène Jobert, Philippe Noiret and Annie Girardot. These were times when French films still outperformed American ones at the box office, and the industry seemed to have a reliable stable of crowd-pleasing genres, actors and directors.

This did not last, and de Broca’s films after the mid-1980s rarely took off either artistically or commercially. After the successful teaming of Catherine Deneuve with Philippe Noiret in L’Africain (1982), the attempted American spectacular Louisiane (1984) nosedived, as did the comedy La Gitane (1986). Brought out as France prepared to celebrate the bicentenary of the Revolution, Chouans! (1988), a blockbuster about royalist insurgents in western France, was moderately successful, but, apart from introducing cinema-goers to Catherine Zeta Jones, the following offering, Les Mille et Une Nuits (1001 Nights, 1990), did only modest business. It was not until Le Bossu (On Guard, 1997) that de Broca again achieved unequivocal success. Unfortunately, however, his reunion with Belmondo for L’Amazone (2000) added little to either man’s career.

De Broca’s last film, Vipère au poing (Viper in the Fist, 2004) which is still playing in France, was more successful, offering a slightly more human vision than the vitriolic autobiographical novel by Hervé Bazin from which it was adapted. A creditable piece of work, it was still a long way from the verve for which de Broca will be remembered.

He was married three times. His third wife and two children survive him.

Philippe de Broca, film director, was born on March 15, 1933. He died of cancer on November 25, 2004, aged 71.

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