Philippe de Broca

Philippe de Broca de Ferrussac, film director: born Paris 15 March 1933; thrice married (two children); died Neuilly-sur-Seine, France 25 November 2004.

Tall, aristocratic, with a handsome if somewhat equine cast of features, Philippe de Broca could have been an actor along the lines of Franchot Tone. But the cinema called him in another direction. After leaving school, he did not, as expected, attend university, but enrolled in the Ecole Nationale de Photographie et de Cinematographie in Paris.

He began his professional career in the mid-Fifties as a newsreel reporter, then turned his attention upon the art of the cinema as assistant to Henri Decoin, a director with strong American leanings and an admirer of the Thirties UPA studios, where he turned out French versions of German hits. It was there that in 1935 he directed Danielle Darrieux (his future wife) in Le Domino vert (The Green Domino) before returning to Hollywood where Darrieux starred in La Coqueluche de Paris (The Rage of Paris, 1938) directed by Henri Koster. These international connections were to have a great influence on de Broca’s most successful work.

After the Second World War came the era of the nouvelle vague in France. It was a sudden passionate rejection of what the new young cinéastes deprecatingly called le cinéma de papa – a typically oedipal rejection of past masters of the art. De Broca was an early adherent of the new movement as assistant to Georges Lacombe, François Truffaut and above all Claude Chabrol, whose epoch-making Le Beau Serge (Handsome Serge, 1958) started the film careers of Gérard Blain, Jean-Claude Brialy and Bernadette Lafont.

It was an immense success, particularly with the younger generation, and inspired de Broca to strike out on his own as a director. After the almost regulation introductory short, Sous un autre soleil (“Under Another Sun”, 1954), he made his first full-length feature, Les Jeux de l’Amour (”Games of Love”) in 1960, shortly followed by Le Farceur (The Joker) – a black comedy about a happy-go-lucky Lothario and his conquest, played by Jean-Pierre Cassel and a deliciously mischievous Anouk Aimée, and co-produced with his mentor Claude Chabrol. In 1961, de Broca directed a Hollywood-style “crazy comedy”, L’Amant de cinq jours (Five Day Lover). It had a favourable reception, so he went on to make a whole slew of American-style adventure comedies, all starring Jean-Paul Belmondo.

To the disgust of the New Wave cinéastes like Alain Resnais (Hiroshima mon amour, 1959) or Jean-Luc Godard (A Bout de souffle, 1959) led by their mentor Alexandre Astruc, de Broca’s new movies and their colossal public successes were a cowardly reversion to le cinéma de papa or the ultra-bourgeois cinéma de qualité. But de Broca proved the clock of culture could be turned back when he exhibited Jean-Paul Belmondo in top form, playing the celebrated bandit Cartouche in the 1962 film of that name. It had an all-star cast: Claudia Cardinale, Odile Versois, Marcel Dalio and Jean Rochefort among them, and it was a smash hit with a certain middle-class public allergic to New Wave experimentations.

It was followed by similar films by other directors, and by de Broca’s extravagant and high-powered L’Homme de Rio (That Man From Rio, 1964) with Belmondo and Françoise Dorléac, and Les Tribulations d’un chinois en Chine (Up to His Ears, 1965) with Belmondo, Ursula Andress, Jean Rochefort and Maria Pacôme – the unsuccessful attempts of a world-weary millionaire to put an end to his life, with many diverting situations and variations on a theme which unexpectedly lends itself to curiously comical complications. The “man in the street” lapped it up.

Its success encouraged de Broca to attempt the ultimate in crowd-pleasers, a slick parody or pastiche of the James Bond sagas, again with Belmondo – Le Magnifique (How to Destroy the Reputation of the Greatest Secret Agent . . . , 1973). Two years later he also directed L’Incorrigible (The Incorrigible) – an incorrigible but oh-so- sympathetic crook just out of clink pursues his madcap career by dressing up in ever-changing multi-sexual disguises to escape the cops and inveigle further victims. With Geneviève Bujold and a pack of nincompoops, it was a riot.

Eventually, de Broca became a victim of his own facility and success which had easily weathered the student revolts of 1968 and their pretensions to a new culture of political significance. He made a bold move to keep in step with the changing spirit of the times by making Le Roi de Coeur (King of Hearts, 1966), a film about the German invasion of France during the 1914-18 Great War starring Alan Bates with a dazzling French cast – Geneviève Bujold, Jean-Claude Brialy, Pierre Brasseur, Michel Serrault and Madeleine Presle among them in a super-realistic production. He was trying to win back younger audiences by indulging in his old pleasure – taking personal liberties with script and character. But the new public he had hoped for stayed away and the film was a financial flop. Strangely, it ran for 10 years in the United States.

De Broca had to back-pedal to those safe-and-sure themes he had used to his own commercial ends, and the masses received him back with open arms. Among his new stars was Annie Girardot, who appeared in two of his new-period movies: Tendre Poulet (Dear Detective, 1978), a successful police comedy with Girardot as a chief of police in love with a professor of Greek played with devastating charm by Philippe Noiret. It was followed in 1979 by Le Cavaleur (The Skirt Chaser) about a concert pianist trying to reconcile his artist’s sensitive soul with ignoble sexual longings.

In Girardot’s sprightly autobiography, Partir, revenir (“Going, Coming Back”, 2003) she has an entertaining chapter on de Broca and Philippe Noiret, a friendship that almost ends when he invites de Broca and Girardot to dinner and greets them with: “Welcome to the old soldiers’ memorial dinner!” Girardot just shrugs it off, but Noiret is devastated to be considered an old dinosaur. Girardot gets her revenge by describing some of de Broca’s less pleasant aspects as a director.

Philippe de Broca kept on turning out movies, which included several flops like the boring pseudo-Yankee Louisiane (Louisiana, 1984) and a much better historical epic or giant fresco about the royalist insurgents in the French Revolution, Chouans! (1988), starring Noiret, Lambert Wilson, Sophie Marceau and Jean-Pierre Cassel. Nineteen ninety brought a super-production of Les mille et une nuits (1001 Nights – marking the film début of Catherine Zeta-Jones) and the next year Les Clés du paradis (The Keys to Paradise).

The later part of de Broca’s career was something of a disappointment to him and to his admirers. He had lost that gift for panache and popular themes. He had a couple of near-hits with Daniel Auteuil in Le Bossu (On Guard, 1997) and the 2003 Vipère au poing (Viper in the Fist), which is still being shown in selected cinemas in France.

James Kirkup

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