The unfaltering friendship that bound Sania Mnouchkine and Philippe de Broca was built on respect, humour, faithfulness, trust, laughs and a shared unwavering love for cinema.
Working together was a source of constant adventure, fun and wonderment. Paired with unfailing professionalism. They were like two kids pulling the craziest pranks on each other, playing at who would be best at amazing the other one most. For many years the third crony of the team was Jean Paul Belmondo.
I don’t recall how many films they made together but I believe Philippe came up with a good dozen (Sania was always game for it), each with its wonders, its epic stories, its extravagant jokes.
Apart from the camel hoisted in Sania’s bedroom, the odalisques hidden in his cupboards, or the baby crocodiles scattered around tourists’ bathrooms in Rio hotels, one episode I remember best, probably because I was indirectly part of it, started agonizingly and ended up as one of Philippe’s best scripts:
He and Sania were shooting “Les tribulations d’un Chinois en Chine”, in Nepal, Malaysia, Hong-Kong. I was working on Louis Malle’s film, “Viva Maria”, in Mexico. We were on location, in some God forsaken one-horse high mountain pueblito, a thousand miles from the Capital, when a concerned Louis Malle comes looking for me asking if I have heard from my father.
- If they’re on schedule, they’re in Hong-Kong right now, but that’s all I know.
- There’s a rumour spreading… It seems Philippe de Broca may have suffered a fatal accident.
- Allegedly, he was electrocuted in his bathtub. We’ve contacted the French consulate in Mexico City; we’re waiting for a reply.
Next morning, sadly, the information is confirmed, but there is no way to get in touch with Hong-Kong (we are in 1964). Distressed, Louis Malle rounds up the crew, informs them of the tragic event and asks for a minute of silence in memory of Philippe.
I can barely measure my father’s sadness and emotional strain. A telegram is sent, more or less in these terms: “deeply moved, the Viva Maria crew shares your sorrow with all its heart”. We are devastated, but the film must go on.
A few hours later, Sania is harshly woken up in the dead of the night by the chief of Hong-Kong police.
- Mr. Mnouchkine, we have been very generous with you, we have helped in all possible ways and this is how you repay us. It is intolerable!
Sania is dumfounded.
- What have you done with the corpse?
- What corpse?!
- Philippe de Broca’s corpse!
Awestruck, Sania rushes to pound on Philippe’s door. No answer. They smash it down. Empty! Sania barges in every room, lounge or bar in the hotel, well ahead of the chief of police and his men galloping behind him, then in every place around Hong-Kong where Philippe could possibly be. He is starting to make a link with the very enigmatic telegram he received during the day, God knows why, from Mexico, which had intrigued the whole staff but which no one had been able to figure out.
They finally find Philippe in some shady floating bar in Aberdeen and everything goes back to normal.
A few months later, when every one of us is back in Paris from around the world, we shall mercifully find out it was all a misunderstanding. But why this misleading information came out in Mexico remains a mystery to this day.
They say the premature announcement of one’s death adds many years to one’s life. That was the case. Sania enjoyed Philippe as the son he had always wanted, and I as the brother I had always dreamed of, for many years more.