Philippe De Broca

French film director Philippe de Broca, whose offbeat 1966 anti-war comedy “King of Hearts” enjoyed years of American arthouse play after failing to engage French audiences, died November 26 of cancer.

The director of over 30 features was 71.

De Broca, who was born in Paris, celebrated his 71st birthday on the set of his final film, the children’s-themed costumer “Viper in the Fist.”

But he was too ill to promote the October 6 release which has passed the 1 million admissions mark.

The son of an industrialist descended from the minor nobility, Philippe de Broca de Ferrussac infused all his films with a sense of fun and adventure, opting for irreverence and insouciance whenever possible.

An able technician who studied photography and trained as a cinematographer at the Ecole Louis Lumiere, De Broca started out with New Wave pals Francois Truffaut (as assistant director on “The 400 Blows”) and Claude Chabrol but concluded the New Wave approach was, by and large, “too intellectual” for his taste, going so far as to say the films bored him.

Having served as an Army cameraman for three years during the Algerian conflict, he preferred “joyous” entertainment as an antidote to the horrors and institutional censorship of war. De Broca made two charmingly laid-back romps with Jean-Pierre Cassel in 1959 and 1960 before applying his prodigious energy — colleagues compared his vitality on set to the springiness on display in Tex Avery cartoons — to a broader canvas.

The success in 1962 of “Cartouche” starring Belmondo as a bandit with elan, led to a series of big budget comedies in which the ever-athletic actor did his own stunts. “That Man from Rio” (1964) sold nearly 5 million tickets in France and put the helmer on the international map.

Other hits with Belmondo included “Les Tribulations d’un Chinois en Chine” (1965), and “Le Magnifique” (1973), a parody of spy pics.

Although WWI-set Franco-British co-production “King of Hearts,” in which Alan Bates arrives in a French town whose only inhabitants hail from the local insane asylum, sold a mere 142,000 tickets in Gaul, it became an arthouse favorite in the U.S., where it was inevitably paired with “Harold and Maude” in repertory theaters.

De Broca re-attained popular success two years later with 1968′s “Devil by the Tail” starring Yves Montand.

De Broca made competent, invariably amusing programmers throughout the ’70s and ’80s, and rarely let a year go by without directing a made-for-TV movie, with 1994′s “Le Jardin des plantes” a sentimental favorite. In 1982 he paired Philippe Noiret and Catherine Deneuve in “The African,” a solid hit in hardtops. De Broca leapt back to international prominence in 1997 with “Le Bossu” (“On Guard!”) a swashbuckling tale of revenge starring Daniel Auteuil and Vincent Perez.

He is survived by a wife and two children.

– Lisa Nesselson

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