Legendary French film director Philippe de Broca has directed thirty feature films throughout the length of his inimitable career, widely christening him as a forerunner in the French New Wave movement, an epic historical drama auteur and an intrepid figurehead of European filmmaking. After witnessing the brutalities of war in North Africa during his time in the French army film service, he vowed to depict the cheerier aspects of life in his filmic projects (“because laughter is the best defence against upsets in life”), instilling his filmic oeuvre with a string of shrewd, light-hearted comedies which have captured both French and international audiences.
Born in the early 1930s to a cinema set designer and photographer, the native Parisian studied photographic techniques at Louis Lumière College before working as a cameramen on short films in Germany and Algeria, under the patronage of the Army Film Service in Algeria. Afterward, the neophyte worked as an intern with filmmaker and writer Henri Decoin and an assistant director for several filmmakers, including New Wave helmers Claude Chabrol on Le Beau Serge and François Truffaut on The 400 Blows. De Broca made his foray into cinema as a director in his own right with his inaugural short film, Les trois rendez-vous (1953), a light, tongue-in-cheek comedy depicting a trio of protagonists with three distinct stories, who each have an appointment to meet with the Inquisitor Saint-Pierre: a melange of tales that ultimately blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy.
Following his debut, De Broca directed a trio of short documentaries – Sous un autre soleil (1954), Salon nautique (1954) and Opération gas-oil (1956) – before releasing his first directorial feature, The Love Game (1960), a jolly comedy centring on a thorny love triangle between unsatisfied antique dealer Suzanne (Geneviève Cluny), her carefree love interest Victor (Jean-Pierre Cassel) and solemn yet enticing neighbour, François (Jean-Louis Maury) – the curious portrait won the Silver Berlin Bear for Best Comedy at the Berlin International Film Festival. De Broca’s following release, Five Day Lover (1961), similarly received a Golden Berlin Bear-nomination for the drama’s alluring portrayal of a web of marital infidelities catalysed by the charming Georges (François Périer), a married gentlemen who pursues affairs with blonde-tressed Claire (played by New Wave starlet Jean Seberg) and her best friend Madeleine (Micheline Presle), both of whom are momentarily unaware of their relationship with the same man.
In the 1960s, De Broca directed several segments in a number of anthology films, beginning with the auteur’s short work “La gourmandise” in Seven Deadly Sins (1962) – a composite which featured seven directors’ interpretations of the religious immoralities – in which De Broca depicts the trials of a peasant family (played by Georges Wilson, Marcelle Arnold, Paul Préboist and Magdeleine Bérubet) who regularly take pauses to eat and drink on their way to the funeral of a relative. Subsequently, he directed a segment entitled “Mademoiselle Mimi” in The Oldest Profession (1967), a group of portraits centred on prostitution’s alterations throughout its existence. Set in revolutionary France, De Broca’s short film depicts the experience of the namesake protagonist – played by French actress Jeanne Moreau – with a client, Philibert (Jean-Claude Brialy), who is more interested in watching the guillotinings outside than sleeping with her.
Next, the director burst onto the big screen with the widely lauded, Oscar-nominated hit, That Man from Rio (1964), an action comedy starring veritable New Wave icon Jean-Paul Belmondo as Adrien Dufourquet, a chivalrous young man who travels to Rio in order to rescue his girlfriend, Agnès (Françoise Dorleac), from a group of petty thieves. In 1966, De Broca co-wrote, directed and produced his personal favourite project, King of Hearts (1966), an eccentric tale set during WWII in French town of Marville where Private Charles Plumpick (Alan Bates) is sent to investigate reports about a bomb that the resistance has planted, subsequently facilitating his encounter with the town’s peculiar residents. Although the drama held a special place in the auteur’s regard, its failure to attain commercial success offered a temporary hitch in De Broca’s career, before he regained international acclaim with the fast-paced adventure film, The Man from Acapulco (1973).
The drama portrays the experience of a spy-novel writer, Francois Merlin (played by Jean-Paul Belmondo), who dismisses the boundaries between reality and imagination by wholly embodying the protagonist of his latest book Bob Saint Clar, while incarnating his neighbour Christine as Tatiana (Jacqueline Bisset) and his editor Georges Charon as Colonel Karpoff (Vittorio Caprioli). De Broca extended his filmic relationship with the transfixing Belmondo in the German Goldene Leinwand-winning, Incorrigible (1975), in which the lead actor plays charismatic conman, Victor Vautier, whose latest target, the parole officer Marie-Charlotte (Geneviève Bujold), threatens to sabotage his long-running streak of criminal accomplishments. Afterward, De Broca directed a stretch of romantic comedies – Le cavaleur (1979), L’Africain (1983), Chouans! (1988) – before releasing the César and BAFTA-nominated, Le bossu (1997), a family drama set in the early 16th century which depicts the conflicts that arise as a result of the unexpected friendship between former rogue Lagardère (Daniel Auteuil) and the Duke of Nevers (Vincent Perez).
In the following years, De Broca directed a string of TV movies – Madame Sans-Gêne (2002), Y aura pas école demain (2003), Un amour en kit (2003) and Le menteur (2004) – which represented a rich directorial catalogue that impressively spanned up until the year of his passing. The helmer’s final film, Viper in the Fist (2004), a sombre drama adapted from French author Hervé Bazin’s popular namesake novel, portrays the tumultuous youth of brothers Jean (Jules Sitruk) and Freddie Rezeau (William Touil), after the interruption of their idyllic existences in Brittany with the death of their grandmother. Indeed, De Broca’s final production evades the strong comedic tenor of his previous films – perhaps an ode to the overwhelming authenticity imbued the maverick’s films which naturally varied with his own passage in life. Indeed, De Broca adhered to his own sense of veracity retained until the very end.