The Triumph of Clare Peploe

On the set of The Triumph of Love

L to R: Jay Rodan, Mira Sorvino,
Fiona Shaw, Clare Peploe and Bernardo Bertolucci on the set
of The Triumph of Love.

Clare Peploe didn’t plan it this way. The writer/director
whose new picture, The Triumph of Love, she adapted for the
screen with husband Bernardo Bertolucci (The Last Emperor, The
), never meant to become a moviemaker. A student of
art and languages, Peploe was born in Zambia, and raised in Kenya,
then Englandand Italy

Though a fan of the
movies as a child-she attended American westerns frequently with
her mother-she never saw herself projected into that world. Her
initial entry into the film business came serendipitously, through
her friendships with moviemakers in Italy, her second home. At one
point an assistant to renowned Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni
(Zabriskie Point, Blow Up), Peploe went on to collaborate
quite frequently with Bertolucci, whom she married in 1979. “I was
always using other people to give ideas to because I didn’t think
that I would actually be making movies. It just became a kind of
necessity. Bernardo got fed up with me and said, ‘Why don’t you
direct a film yourself?”

First came a 30-minute short, Couples and Robbers (1981), which received Oscar and British Academy nominations. Then,
in 1987, Peploe directed her debut feature, High Season,
which was followed by a thriller, Sauce For The Goose, (1987)
and the Bridget Fonda-Russell Crowe pic, Rough Magic (1995).
A director of comedies somewhat by accident-“on the whole, I don’t
go to comedies”-Clare Peploe returns with Triumph, her spry
and deliberately modern take on the 18th century French farce by
Pierre Marivaux. The picture features a tour-de-force entry by Mira
Sorvino, who plays a princess who disguises herself as a young man
to win the hand of Agis (Jay Rodan)-a rival for her thrown. Agis
has been raised by his uncle and aunt (Ben Kingsley and Fiona Shaw)
to love reason, distrust emotion, and above all, hate Sorvino’s
princess, a woman he has never met. Here, Peploe discusses how the
18th century translates to modern times and behavior and the difference
between the scientific and romantic explanations of love.

Phillip Williams (MM): You have contributed
to several films as a writer before
The Triumph of Love;
did this script pose any particular challenges?

Clare Peploe (CP): The script, no. Once I understood
how I was going to do it-the key ideas-which was to shoot it in
a certain way, very freely, in an un-theatrical manner using Steadicam
and handheld, then I was on my way.

MM: There is a lot of play with gender roles
and gender expectations in this film.

CP: Yes, certainly with Mira Sorvino when she
falls in love with Jay Rodan and there is the sense that there could
be a homosexual relationship for him. And she is afraid of that,
so she has to show him that she is a girl, although he has been
brought up to loathe women.

MM: To what extent did you consider the
parallels that might exist between your story and what’s going on
in society today with gender roles-the way they play out in our

CP: I just thought there were certain parallels,
actually, although it seemed right to keep the story in the 18th
Century, because it was exciting to see that an 18th Century play
could still reach one.

MM: Why is that time period so suited for
romantic comedy?

CP: I think it’s because it was a period of
enlightenment. Marivaux, the playwright, is analyzing love like
a scientist more than a romantic. He is saying that love can make
fools of us all, that it can be cruel and humiliating. And yet,
without experiencing it, we can’t really understand human nature.
He had, I feel, a more scientific than romantic way of looking at
it. He dissects those feelings of love.

MM: It seems to me that it helps to have
the piece in the 18th Century, because we might find it harder to
accept modern characters being so overtly philosophical, and so
naive about their emotions.

CP: Yes, it is easier to absorb coming from
another time, and yet there is something about the emotion of that
time that I think is similar to now. For example, when I was young,
in the 1960s, we were much more romantic: romantic about politics,
about feelings. Feelings and emotions were more mystified. Now,
we are told where the G spot is and where our erogenous zones are.
Sex has become part of the health trip. It’s sort of practical and
that is, oddly enough, very 18th century.

MM: Why did you decide to use Steadicam
and handheld cameras? Why did you go against the sort of “Masterpiece
Theater” approach, which would be a typical choice with material
like this?

CP: I wanted to be very fluid, and be able
to register every palpitation, every heartbeat, because it was such
a dissection of feelings and love. Also, I didn’t want to be theatrical;
I tried to get away from a sort of window in which everything goes
on. I wanted to be inside the action with the characters.

MM: Did you want people to be reminded that
it’s a modern viewing of the story?

CP: I wanted people to know that the text was
not a story taking place in the 18th Century, but it was a story written in the 18th Century, which has its own stylistic
codes. And at the same time (laughs) to forget about it. There was
always this play, a kind of dance between theater and film. When
we see the modern audience inside the film itself, it’s not just
to inform us that we are watching a theater piece but to add a kind
of feeling to the characters, as well. They-the characters in the
film-are confronted by the presence of a physical audience. It causes
them anxiety, like a jump cut. In fact I use it like a jump cut.
It’s a dance between 18th Century theater and film; between the
18th century and the modern. We took a similar approach to the soundtrack.

MM: You used Pink Floyd guitarist David
Gilmore on the soundtrack. How did that come about? Modern rock
guitar with 18th Century classical?

CP: Yes, we were using music of that period.
It was rearranged but and it was very rhythmic, cinematic music,
which went very well with the film. At the same time we wanted to
be able to forget the 18th Century. When the emotions go haywire,
when they’re losing their heads, it’s almost as if the electric
guitar that comes in-or the modernity-represents a kind of truth
about these wild, intense feelings. It’s about getting away from
the formality.

MM: How did you prepare for this film? Would
you consider this film a departure for you?

CP: A departure in that I never thought of
adapting theater. It all happened by chance. I fell in love with
the piece and just then Bernardo had money to invest in a little
film that had to be shot in Italy within a certain time. And I thought
this could be perfect for that. The preparation was pretty straightforward.
The casting was crucial, of course.

MM: Was the casting process a lengthy one?

CP: The whole thing went pretty quickly. The
most important thing was casting Mira, the lead. I knew I wanted
Ben and Fiona has always been one of my favorites. It was difficult
to find Jay. It was difficult to find a young actor who somehow
has a sort of otherworldliness about him. He has a kind of melancholy-a
secret melancholy-about him, which went so well with this character,
who has lived on his own for so long and has no friends.

MM: Did your conception of the film evolve
much over the course of making the picture?

CP: It did a lot. I would plan the shots very
much at the last minute-the night before, or I’d work them out with
the operator. I would have a conversation about a scene with the
actors but we might just say, ‘Well, we’ll start over there and
end up here.’ As vague as that and then work out very fast, in the
moment, what we were going to do.

MM: What films or filmmakers are exciting
to you these days?

CP: I love Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry)
films. And also Samira Makhmalbaf (Blackboards), the young
girl who won at the Cannes Film Festival. She’s great. She did a
film called The Apple (1998)-her first film-when she was
18 years old, and it’s the most incredible metaphor of repression
in Iran.

MM: There is an incredible intensity to
Iranian films.

CP: Yes, very simple. And it’s partly because
they are not allowed to say a lot of things. There is so much that
they can’t say that they have to find other ways of expressing things.

MM: Like American cinema from the ’30s and

CP: I know, yes. It’s like, ‘great poetry came
from the gulag’ or whatever. It’s so ironic that our freedom is
leading to everyone having the same taste.

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