Scotsman Obituaries: Clare Peploe, film director from family of Scottish artists

Clare Peploe, film writer and director. Born: October 20 1941 in Dar es Salaam, Tanganyika. Died: June 23 2021 in Rome, aged 79

Clare Peploe attends the premiere of The Triumph Of Love in 2002 in Hollywood (Picture: Vince Bucci/Getty Images)
Clare Peploe attends the premiere of The Triumph Of Love in 2002 in Hollywood (Picture: Vince Bucci/Getty Images)

Clare Peploe was born into the world of the arts. Her grandfather was one of Scotland’s most famous painters and her parents were artists too. She was the professional and personal partner of, in turn, the Italian directors Michelangelo Antonioni and Bernardo Bertolucci and she was a filmmaker in her own right.

She was born in Africa, she spent much of her life in England and Italy and she was Italian, American and German on her mother’s side. But she regarded herself as Scottish. “If somebody says ‘She’s English’, I say ‘No, I’m Scottish.’

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“I feel I’ve been denied my Scottishness,” she told me when she visited Edinburgh in 1996 to promote her film Rough Magic, a romantic comedy starring Russell Crowe and Bridget Fonda and set in Central America. She said that she regretted that her father had never taken her to Scotland when she was growing up.

“My grandfather is a well-known painter,” she said with more than a hint of understatement. “I have some of his paintings and I love them very much, all those Hebrides, those islands, and I am sort of somehow spiritually there.”

She was born Clare Frances Katherine Peploe in 1941 in Dar es Salaam in what was then Tanganyika in West Africa, where her father worked as a civil servant. Her grandfather Samuel Peploe had been one of the leading figures in the Scottish Colourist movement. He died six years before she was born.

She grew up largely in Kenya, Italy, where her mother was born, and London, where her father became a prominent art dealer. She studied languages at the Sorbonne in Paris and the University of Perugia in Italy and became an aficionado of European arthouse cinema during her student days.

Back in London Peploe met Antonioni when he was preparing to shoot his Swinging Sixties classic Blow-Up and they began a lengthy relationship. By the time of his next film, the enigmatic Californian hippy movie Zabriskie Point, she was one of his co-writers as well as his lover. It was Peploe who introduced Antonioni to the music of Pink Floyd, which features prominently in the film.

She met Bernardo Bertolucci in the early 1970s, around the time of Last Tango in Paris, his notorious sex drama with Marlon Brando. She was an assistant director on Bertolucci’s sprawling historical epic 1900, with Robert De Niro and Gerard Depardieu, and she co-wrote La Luna, the story of an opera singer who has an incestuous relationship with her son.

Peploe and Bertolucci married in 1979. He encouraged her to make her own films and she wrote and directed the half-hour short Couples and Robbers, starring Rik Mayall. Despite Oscar and Bafta nominations, it would be another six years before her next film High Season, one of only three feature films that she directed.

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High Season threw together an international mixture of characters on Rhodes, including photographer Jacqueline Bisset, her erstwhile husband sculptor James Fox and local matriarch Irene Papas. It also provided the young Kenneth Branagh with one of his first major film roles.

Peploe co-wrote High Season with her brother Mark Peploe, who also co-wrote The Last Emperor with Bertolucci. Both films came out in 1987, though The Last Emperor had a significantly higher profile, winning nine Oscars, including Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay. Peploe maintained that being married to Bertolucci was of no benefit when it came to her own projects and suggested that, if anything, it made potential backers suspicious.

Nine years passed before Rough Magic, an adaptation of a James Hadley Chase novel about a stage magician’s assistant (Bridget Fonda) who witnesses a murder and flees to Latin America, pursued by a private detective (Russell Crowe).

A troubled production, Rough Magic was meant to shoot extensively in Guatemala, but local tensions restricted Peploe to a few days’ shooting at a Mayan temple there before cast and crew relocated to Mexico.

Rough Magic mixed elements from different genres, including romance, thriller and period drama. It failed to find much of an audience – this was before Crowe’s career took off with Gladiator. And it did little to advance Peploe’s film-making ambitions. Her films generally mixed the influences of the Nouvelle Vague with a whimsicality often seen in Scottish comedy.

Peploe collaborated with Bertolucci on the script for his film Besieged, a 1998 drama, starring David Thewlis and Thandiwe Newton, before Bertolucci was instrumental in helping her make one final film as writer and director.

They adapted The Triumph of Love from an 18th-century play by Pierre de Marivaux and Bertolucci served as producer on the film, a comedy starring Mira Sorvino, Ben Kingsley and Fiona Shaw.

Peploe’s films were never blockbusters, but were often well regarded at festivals and by critics.

Latterly she divided her time between London and Rome and worked with Bertolucci on the restoration of Last Tango. He died in 2018. They did not have children.

She is survived by her brother Mark.

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