Born: October 20, 1941;

Died: June 23, 2021.

CLARE Peploe, who has died of lung cancer aged 79, was a filmmaker of serious intent, but whose work was possessed with a lightness of touch and off-kilter playfulness that kept her one step shy of the mainstream. Her three feature films as writer and director were breezily nuanced studies of the rules of attraction in extremis. While too wryly amusing to be considered arthouse, they never quite found the commercial cache of other rom-coms.

From her feature debut, High Season (1987), to her final film as a director, The Triumph of Love (2001), she fused the influences of late-20th century European cinema with English and American sensibilities. The results remain quirkily intelligent affairs.

Peploe’s film work began first with Michelangelo Antonioni, whom she met when the Italian director hit the London party scene while preparing his swinging existential thriller, Blow Up (1966).

Peploe went on to become one of five screenwriters credited on Zabriskie Point (1970), Antonioni’s elemental hippy fable, which attempted to explore some of the era’s counter-cultural disaffection among the young. She also introduced him to the music of Pink Floyd, which was used in some of the film’s key moments. As a couple, Peploe and Antonioni were together for eight years.

Peploe had a similar effect on Bernardo Bertolucci, whom she met around the time his controversial, Marlon Brando-starring Last Tango in Paris (1972) was causing a stir. She went on to work with him as assistant director on his epic historical drama, 1900 (1976) as well as on Novecento (1976). The couple married in 1978, and were together until Bertolucci’s passing in 2018.

Peploe co-scripted La Luna (1979), about an opera singer who has an incestuous affair with her teenage son in an attempt to wean him off heroin. She also co-wrote Besieged (1998), about a composer who falls in love with his African housekeeper. When he says he will do anything for her, she asks him to get her political prisoner husband out of jail. Peploe also worked on the film as an associate producer.

Of her own films, which also included Rough Magic (1995), the US critic Roger Ebert summed up her work best in his review of High Season, which starred Jacqueline Bisset as an expat photographer in Greece. It was, he said, ‘an example of a rare species: the intelligent silly movie’.

Clare Frances Katherine Peploe was born in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania, to English parents, William Peploe, a civil servant who later became an art dealer and director of the Lefevre Gallery in London, and Clotilde (née Brewster), a painter. Peploe, her sister Cloe and brother Mark grew up first in Kenya, then in Florence in Italy, and eventually in London.

Peploe became captivated by film as a child, visiting the cinema with her mother inbetween school at St Clare’s in Oxford and the independent sixth-form London college, Westminster Tutors.

She fell in love with the work of prominent European auteurs such as Jean-Luc Godard while studying French at the Sorbonne in Paris, and Italian at the University of Perugia. With the 1960s just beginning, her travels abroad chimed with the rise of the nouvelle vague, influences from which fed into her own work.

This was as evident in her first film as a director, Couples and Robbers (1981), as it was two decades later in The Triumph of Love. Couples and Robbers was a half-hour short that starred Frances Low and Rik Mayall as a newly-married couple who become car thieves after a lacklustre wedding. The film was both Bafta and Oscar-nominated, and set the tone for Peploe’s canon to come.

High Season, co-written with her brother Mark, followed. Mark had previously worked with Antonioni on the screenplay of The Passenger (1975), and would go on to work with Bertolucci on the Last Emperor (1987), The Sheltering Sky (1990) and Little Buddha (1993).

Inbetween films, Peploe directed Sauce for the Goose (1990), which formed part of Chillers, an anthology series of adaptations of Patricia Highsmith short stories. It starred Ian McShane as a lounge singer who sweet-talks a woman into murdering her hotelier husband, though whether for love or money is uncertain.

Rough Magic (1995) starred Bridget Fonda and Russell Crowe in an adaptation of James Hadley Chase’s novel, Miss Shumway Waves a Wand. Set in the 1950s, Peploe’s film saw Fonda play an apprentice conjuror, who goes to Mexico to escape her politician fiancé, and meets a Mayan shaman who gives her real magical powers. What sounds initially like the makings of a romantic screwball noir takes a leap into more fantastical if at times eminently silly waters.

Peploe’s final work, The Triumph of Love, was an 18th-century-set rom-com based on Pierre de Marivaux’s 1732 play of the same name. It starred Mira Sorvino and Ben Kingsley, and was produced by Bertolucci. Sorvino played the daughter of an usurper to the throne who falls in love with the rightful heir.

Despite the film’s classical roots, Peploe continued to have stylistic fun with the original material, with hand-held camerawork and jump-cuts giving a knowingly modern take on proceedings that drew from Godard. Much more than mere homage, the film’s fusion of French traditions revealed a wit-laden if at times overlooked talent whose work deserves closer scrutiny.

She is survived by her brother, Mark.