Philippe de Broca (born March 15th 1933) liked to tell people that his noble lineage could be traced back to the wars of religion which devastated the south west of France, and that this was why the family coat of arms featured a dead tree; a nod to the massacres carried out by his valiant ancestors. He held on to this provocative sense of humor throughout his life, often making people feel uncomfortable. His great-great-grandfather was a Bonapartist general, his grandfather and father were decorated in the First World War, and it was probably the weight of this ancestry which put the young de Broca off the idea of a career in the military. But what to do instead? With peace restored, his grandfather had returned to painting, while his father made the large photographic backdrops used by film studios. Philippe, having more of an interest in images than in weapons, attended the ETPC on the rue de Vaugirard in Paris, the school for future cinematographers. As soon as he graduated, he set off to travel across Africa in Berliet trucks, the first hint at the adventure movies he would later make.
Unable to avoid his military service, he finds himself in French-occupied Germany, in Baden-Baden, where the Service Cinématographique des Armées (Army Film Service) is based. With the war in Algeria continuing, the SCA moves to Algiers, where private first class de Broca puts his talent to use, filming operations in the mountains and shooting footage of captured weapons to be shown on the news. Here he also directs educational films. Finally released after thirty months of service, he returns to Paris, moves away from shooting pictures, and instead finds internships as a director’s assistant, with Henri Decoin among others.
Then he is asked to work on an unknown young director’s first movie, in the rural Creuse area of central France, in the depths of winter. He hesitates before accepting, and this is where he meets Claude Chabrol, who is working on Le Beau Serge. Next up: Les Cousins and Web of Passion (A Double Tour), then François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (Les Quatre Cents Coups), and Pierre Schoendorffer’s Ramuntcho. This is where his career as an assistant comes to and, since the generous Claude Chabrol offers him the chance to produce his first film. It’s the height of the French New Wave, and amongst all the young pretenders, Philippe is the only one with ‘professional training’: the others having emerged from the press, from film criticism, or from nowhere at all. This apparent advantage goes on to become a problem, leading to the cool reception sometimes offered by his fellow directors.
Les Jeux de l’Amour, based on an idea by Geneviève Cluny, who also plays the heroine, sees the beginnings of a foursome who will work together on the following two films, The Joker (Le Farceur) and Five Day Lover (l’Amant de cinq jours): Jean-Pierre Cassel acting, Daniel Boulanger writing the screenplay, Jean Penzer filming, and Georges Delerue providing the music. They will go on to work together often throughout Philippe de Broca’s career: he remained faithful to his actors and crew-members. These first three films meet with a largely favorable reception, with the freshness, the original tone, and the discovery of new acting talent being especially praised. But it is with Cartouche, featuring the actors Jean-Paul Belmondo and Claudia Cardinale, that his talent for sumptuous historical films and open landscapes is really allowed to shine: a talent hidden in his early Parisian comedies.
After the success of Cartouche, Philippe de Broca goes on to alternate between romantic comedies with a touch of cheekiness about them, and spectacular epic movies, which allow him to indulge his interest in history. With That Man from Rio (L’Homme de Rio), a surprise worldwide hit, a third type of film emerges: the adventure-comedy where a hero is plunged against his will into sticky situations from which he manages to emerge unscathed: a form which will prove to influence future directors, including Steven Spielberg with the Indiana Jones movies. From Five Day Lover (L’Amant de cinq jours) onwards, Philippe has the support of two producers, Georges Dancigers and Alexandre Mnouchkine, who believe in his talent and will continue to work with him for many years. From this point on, he can give full flow to his imagination in his movies.
This long career has one rather exceptional quality: rare are the directors whose life’s work remains so coherent, a sort of disguised autobiography, presenting, over 44 years, a series of scenes which reflect, throughout each phase of his life, his changing inclinations, tastes, and interests. There are the films he made as a young man, those of his middle age, and those he made as he approached his later years. Embodying these successive stages, Jean-Pierre Cassel, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Jean Rochefort, and then Philippe Noiret could be said to represent the masculine characters who go from indifference to a kind of wisdom, reflecting the evolution of the indefatigable director himself. Different screenwriters worked with him on these stories, but there is always a certain style, a distinctive ‘hand’ running through all of them, unique to the director: a mix of provocative humor, schoolboy cheekiness, and shyness when faced with a heroine who proves difficult to woo and, therefore, makes the hero surpass himself. Rare are the directors who tell their own story in this way, film after film, and those who do are amongst the greatest: Chaplin, Bergman, Fellini… Sadly, Philippe de Broca expressed himself in popular comedies, in an era when drama, corruption, and violence came to be favored over lightness and humor, with the latter being viewed as a minor genre. This is despite the audience’s clear taste for a well-made comedy: as we all know, it’s much harder to make people laugh than it is to make them cry.
Naturally, these 28 feature-length films were not exclusively huge hits. But in the three different categories which make up his filmography, some films typify the world according to de Broca:
– Contemporary (and romantic) comedies: Les Jeux de l’amour, The Joker (Le Farceur), Male Companion (Un Monsieur de Compagnie), The Devil by the Tail (Le Diable par la queue), Dear Inspector (Tendre poulet), Le Cavaleur
– Exotic (and romantic) adventure films: That Man from Rio (L’homme de Rio), Up to His Ears (Les tribulations d’un Chinois en Chine), Touch and Go (La poudre d’escampette), Jupiter’s Thigh (On a volé la cuisse de Jupiter), L’Africain, Le Magnifique
– Epic (and romantic) historical films: Cartouche, King of Hearts (Le Roi de cœur), Louisiana (Louisiane), Chouans!, Les 1001 nuits, On Guard (Le Bossu)
It is with this last category, the most ambitious and spectacular, that de Broca suffered the commercial failures which hurt him deeply. Like, for example, the inexplicably cold welcome offered to King of Hearts, his first foray into production (Fildebroc in 1966): the film went on to become one of his cult classics. For Louisiana, Chouans! and Les 1001 Nuits, a possible explanation is the fact that they were coproduced for television, broken down into short episodes and watched on small screens ill-suited to the soaring landscapes and scale of the films themselves. Yet the stories were full of twists and turns, and featured strong characters. Unfortunately, the film versions had to be shortened drastically for the cinema, with so many scenes being edited out that the results were little more than an advertisement for the television series. This could have been avoided by releasing the films in two episodes, like the Marcel Pagnol adaptations, to retain the depth and complexity of the storylines and characters, but sadly this is not what happened. It wasn’t until On Guard (Le Bossu) that de Broca returned to the flair and eloquence of, say, Cartouche, bringing him deserved, if belated, success.
Luckily the ‘contemporary comedies’ and ‘exotic films’ were spared the demands of television, remaining ‘true’ films, best appreciated in a cinema. It is on the big screen that audiences have most enjoyed watching these adventures: adventures where the hero is launched on an escapade which seems initially to be too much for him, but which he manages to overcome thanks to his wits. The failure of King of Hearts hurt Philippe, but he bounced back, as always, and returned to success with the following film, The Devil by the Tail.
Unlike most directors, Philippe de Broca’s conversation was not limited to talk of his trade: he preferred to discuss other topics, such as astronomy, history, sailing, gardening, and model trains. These real passions of his would be discussed while he slit the throat of or plucked a chicken from his hen-house, destined to feed dinner guests at his country home. Philippe was also a good cook and welcoming host, enjoying his rural life surrounded by his family, his children Alexandre, Chloé and Jade, as well as his friends, when he wasn’t on the other side of the world shouting ‘action!’.
Philippe de Broca died of cancer on November 26th 2004.