A Rare Glimpse Into the Private Life of Enigmatic Actress Charlotte Rampling

Rampling, who came to Israel as a guest of the French film festival, is setting out to prove that being is of the essence, and this desire to prove, to experience and to learn is what characterizes her career.

In many of her films, actress Charlotte Rampling conveys a sense of severity that is accentuated her unique beauty: the prominent cheek bones; the narrow mouth, adorned at times by an enigmatic smile; and of course those narrow, cat-like eyes, whose color ranges, depending on the light, from green to gray and even to yellow.

It is a delight to discover, on meeting Rampling in person, that she is far less forbidding than her films might suggest (among them, "Georgy Girl," "The Damned," "The Night Porter" and "Swimming Pool" ). True, she does speak of a kind of darkness inside her, and believes that to a certain extent there can be no good actor who does not harbor a darkness in their soul. Acting, Rampling contends, is the attempt to deal with that darkness, and to use it in one's work to create a character who is different from oneself. And yet, in person, Rampling smiles with a sincere delight. When she laughs, her face lights up in a manner that we only seldom see in her films.

Charlotte Rampling - David Bachar - April 2012
David Bachar

A portrait of the artist

This light is indeed evident in the film that brought Rampling to Israel as a guest of the French film festival, organized by the French Institute, the French embassy and Eden Cinema Ltd., and which is ongoing at cinematheques around the country through Wednesday. It is a documentary called "The Look: A Self-Portrait Through Others," directed by Angelina Maccarone, and its heroine is the enigmatic Rampling. Rampling says one of the reasons she agreed to do the film was to show that, despite the air of sternness about her, she also has a brighter, lighter side.

If the film is a self-portrait of Rampling, the "others" referenced in the title are the seven men and two women with whom she converses in each of the film's chapters. Each chapter has a title of its own - for example, "Exposure," "Beauty," "Demons," "Taboo," "Desire," "Love" and "Death." Among her interlocutors, whom Rampling chose herself, are the writer Paul Auster, fashion photographer Peter Lindbergh, painter Anthony Palliser, director Joy Fleury and director Barnaby Southcombe - Rampling's son from her first marriage to actor Bryan Southcombe. (The son recently directed his first feature film, "I, Anna," starring his mother. )

Rampling comes off in the documentary as more accessible than she does in most of her films. After all, what made her a star in 1966 was her portrayal of the sexy and selfish young woman in the hit movie "Georgy Girl," directed by Silvio Narizzano. More recently we saw her as the coldhearted mother in Lars von Trier's film "Melancholia."

"The Look," with all of its virtues and limitations, is unlike most documentaries that deal with actors. The idea was first conceived of by a German producer who wrote Rampling a long letter more than five years ago, proposing to make a documentary about her. Initially Rampling declined, believing the idea was too pretentious. But gradually the idea gained traction. German screenwriter and director Angelina Maccarone suggested possible ways to ensure the film would not be a portrait of an arrogant actress, and eventually Rampling accepted the offer.

Nevertheless, Rampling insisted that the film not feature conventional interviews about her - and indeed there are no such scenes in the movie - but rather, a kind of dialogue in which she speaks with people she cares about. In other words, a film that displays her.

"Before I died, I wanted to actually just show myself and others a little bit more of who I was, not just as an actor," she says. Rampling says she believes she has successfully attained this objective in the film, and that it touches on aspects of her inner world - not all of them, she is quick to qualify, but some.

Rampling adds that having a female director gave her the freedom to be as exposed and open in the film as possible. There was no danger of being seduced by the director, she said, noting that she does not mean this in the sense of becoming the object of the director's desire. Rather, she explains, she was not tempted to alter her behavior or conceal aspects of her personality because of a man's gaze. "I didn't want to be admired from a man's point of view or even admiring what I'd done from that point of view," she says. The presence of a woman behind the camera granted her the security she needed. "I wanted somebody, in a sense, who could just be my buddy, could be my friend. And it just so happened that she did," Rampling says of Maccarone.

The title of the film, "The Look," can be interpreted in several ways. It can be said to refer to the gaze that the film directs at Rampling; it can also refer to the gaze that Rampling directs at the world around her (the film often shows her photographing her surroundings ). It is also, in a sense, a way of defining and even objectifying her. There was a time, after all, when movie stars were assigned monikers based on certain aspects of their appearance. For example, Lauren Bacall, to whom Rampling has sometimes been compared, was called at one time "The Look."

So which is the correct interpretation? Rampling suggests that all three are valid interpretations, and that the title allows the film to be interpreted in multiple ways. "This is why we start with the chapter 'Exposure,' because for me that is the most devastatingly uncomfortable part of my business - people looking at me, which is quite peculiar because that is what they do all the time."

Rampling says the film ultimately justifies its definition as a self-portrait. This documentary, she says, is as close to a self-portrait as a film can get. And yet, even in a film such as this, when the camera is on her, one inevitably asks: Is this the "real" Charlotte Rampling we are seeing, or is she acting at being Charlotte Rampling?

Her answer to this question is that she is as close to being the "real" Charlotte Rampling as she thinks Charlotte Rampling can be. "How do we really know what kind of human beings we are?" she asks. "When we do put on our face to go outside, how much are we actually being who we really are?"

A star is born

Rampling was born in Essex, England, in 1946. Her father was an army officer and her mother a painter. She was sent to prestigious boarding schools in France and England, and at 17 she began working as a model. In 1965 she appeared in a small, un-credited role in Richard Lester's film "The Knack... and How to Get It," as well as in the comedy "Rotten to the Core," produced and directed by brothers John and Roy Boulting.

Then came "Georgy Girl," which catapulted Rampling and fellow actress Lynn Redgrave (who played the lead role ) into the limelight. Did the lovely 20-year-old who appeared in "Georgy Girl" know that more than four decades later she would still be a star, with a fascinating career behind her?

Rampling is flattered by the suggestion that her career has been a fascinating one, but she notes that it has also been a peculiar career indeed. She never belonged to mainstream cinema, she says, and her career has often had a marginal dimension about it. But she agrees that this may well account for it being so notable.

Rampling explains that while she has always been ambitious, she never had a specific plan for her career or for her life. Things always came to her. She never put herself up for a role, even if she wanted it badly. She always waited to be chosen.

Is that a mark of humility or of pride?

"I think it's probably pride" is her prompt reply. "I didn't want to have to do the desiring. I wanted to be desired."

There was one role, however, that she desperately wanted but missed out on, she says with a great display of enthusiasm: It was the lead role in "The French Lieutenant's Woman."

"That was a film I really wanted to do. I really wanted to do that role," Rampling says. "That was a role for me if ever there was a role."

Indeed, while actress Meryl Streep gave an undoubtedly impressive performance in the role, one can clearly see Rampling in the famous scene from "The French Lieutenant's Woman," standing on the pier and gazing back, with her distinctive look, at us.

It is clear from the conversation with Rampling - and also from her statements in the documentary - that the word "acting" is not particularly meaningful to her. A far more important word to Rampling is "being." Acting is being in front of the camera and expressing an emotion, she says; she is more interested in the art of being another character whose journey she believes in.

What doesn't interest Rampling is pure entertainment. She refuses to appear in any film that does not deal with something that interests her, something that strikes her as significant, something that comments on human existence and the world in which we live. That is the first thing she looks for when she reads a script: Do the film and the character's story stand for something? Do they say something she would like to grapple with?

How important is a director to you?

"Very important, because I really need to bond with them in a very very unique way," Rampling says. "I just want to become everything that he could possibly imagine."

Have you ever thought of directing yourself?

"No. I don't like telling people what to do."

Which film do you consider the formative one of your career? Was it "Georgy Girl," in which you were discovered? Or was it "The Night Porter," Liliana Cavani's film from 1974, in which you played a Holocaust survivor who meets up with the Nazi officer who abused you, but who also protected you during the war? "'The Night Porter' is mentioned all the time, so I guess it's 'The Night Porter,'" Rampling says. In that case, she got the part at the initiative of the British actor Dirk Bogarde. Cavani had approached him about appearing in the movie, but he turned the offer down several times on the grounds that there was no point in making the film until the right actress was found for the female lead. One day he happened to see Rampling in a television production and reportedly told Cavani: "I know the girl that can do this with me."

Rampling is aware of the controversy the film aroused; some viewed it as an important work, while others treated it as a near-pornographic exploitation of the memory of the Holocaust. But Rampling did not hesitate when she was offered the role. The experience of shooting that film was an exception in her book. She was conscious of the problematic nature of the material. She was not familiar with Cavani's previous works, but trusted Bogarde, and while the director is usually the most important figure for her, in "The Night Porter" it was the actor who worked alongside her and guided her the whole way.

Bogarde, whom Rampling speaks of lovingly, became a lifelong friend until his death, and she considers him one of the two mentors who molded her as an actress in the early stages of her career. The other is Italian director Luchino Visconti, in whose film "The Damned," which likewise dealt with the Third Reich era, she appeared in 1969. To her regret, she worked with him only once. He offered her the lead in his last film, "The Innocent," but she was already committed to another film.

Rampling has worked with many interesting directors who are vastly different from each other - for example, Woody Allen, in whose film "Stardust Memories" she starred in 1980 (and is there any greater difference than between the operatic Visconti and the minimalist Allen? ). She had not been acquainted with Allen prior to meeting him in Paris, where he was casting his movie, and where he reportedly asked her: "Would you be my perfect woman in my new film?" Rampling, who mimics Allen's style of speaking as she recounts the incident, laughs and asks how anyone could refuse such an offer.

It was Allen who told Rampling that she has a talent for comedy, although to her regret she has not had much of a chance to use it. She appears bemused by the suggestion that she was really quite funny in Dominik Moll's 2005 film "Lemming," even though she played a tragic figure. But ultimately she concedes that the scenes in which she appeared were indeed very funny.

Breathing new life into her career

These days the French director Francois Ozon plays a highly significant role in Rampling's career. She starred in two of his films, "Under the Sand" (2000 ) and "Swimming Pool" (2005 ). She also had a supporting role in a third film, "Angel" (2007 ).

Rampling once declared that Ozon breathed new life into her career. In the 1990s, she says, she went through a difficult period, both personally and professionally, a midlife crisis of sorts. Working with Ozon rehabilitated her on various levels, says the actress. Rampling says she immediately felt a connection with Ozon; he is a man who appears to be very put together, Rampling says, but someone in whom there also lurks a great darkness. "He's like a dark angel," says Rampling.

In "Under the Sand," the movie that restored Rampling to the center of the cinematic world, she played a woman who contends with the sudden disappearance of her husband. The film, she says, gave her a chance to deal with feelings of loss and grief that she had felt throughout her life and had never really managed to confront. Such feelings were prompted by the suicide of her older sister Sarah, when she was 23, and the destruction in 1996 of her 20-year marriage to the composer Jean Michel Jarre, who is the father of her second son, David Jarre, a professional magician.

According to Rampling, Ozon built their next film, "Swimming Pool," around her. In it she plays a British mystery writer who abandons rainy Britain for sunny France to write her next book, and she is compelled to face the fact that she has no life outside of her writing. Ozon named Rampling's character Sarah, after the actress' late sister.

In 2005 Rampling took on one of her most provocative roles, in the French director Laurent Cantet's film "Heading South." The film tells the stories of three white women who travel to Haiti to engage in sex acts with young locals, for whom this aspect of Haitian tourism constitutes their main source of income. Rampling, who played a French literature professor at a Boston university, acknowledges the film's quality and power, but maintains that it was her most trying cinematic experience. She had never felt so ill at ease with a character she portrayed, she says, though she's unable to pinpoint the exact source of her discomfort. Something about that woman, her wishes, her desires and actions, apparently touched Rampling in a way she still has trouble dealing with. A look of disgust practically covers her face as she talks about the character.

Rejecting the Hollywood scene

One of the reasons that Rampling's career has had such a marginal dimension, she suggests, is that she decided to generally forgo working in Hollywood. She was in a few good American films, among them Dick Richards' "Farewell, My Lovely" (1975 ), based on a Raymond Chandler book, in which she starred alongside Robert Mitchum; Sidney Lumet's "The Verdict" (1982 ), in which she co-starred with Paul Newman; and "Angel Heart," Alan Parker's 1987 mystery starring Mickey Rourke. But her Hollywood output could have been more extensive if she had wanted it to be.

Rampling says the reason she tries to avoid making American films is that she despises the Los Angeles scene. She doesn't relate to the people who live and work there, she says. Working in Hollywood means living in Los Angeles, and she cannot live in a city where the sole topic of conversation is film.

That said, she has only good things to say about the two film giants she worked with in Hollywood, Mitchum and Newman. Newman was shy, she says, and Mitchum drank too much, but did his job with admirable professionalism. Both were good people ("fine men," as she puts it in her polite British style ).

More problematic was Lars von Trier. Rampling was at Cannes for the screening of "Melancholia," which was in competition for the Palme d'Or, when scandal erupted following a statement by von Trier at a press conference in which he expressed sympathy for Hitler.

It was their first project together. Von Trier had previously offered Rampling a role in his 1991 film "Europa," but the collaboration never came to fruition. Rampling does not hesitate to acknowledge that von Trier is disturbed, perhaps even pathologically.

Growing old on film

There is hardly an article about Rampling - who was born in 1946 - that does not touch on the question of her age. She laughs at this fact, and asks how one reaches such an age and still manages to function. But then Rampling grows serious. There are fewer roles for women her age, she says, and these are mostly supporting roles. But that is natural, she adds; cinema is intended for young people. Women between the ages of 20 and 40 can play older characters; older women cannot play younger characters, so the selection becomes more limited.

Getting old is no fun, she says, laughing - not for actresses or for anyone else.

Still, Rampling says she doesn't mind appearing in supporting roles, although after a number of small parts she did she feel like sinking her teeth into a challenging leading role. She got that chance recently with the Australian director Fred Schepisi in a film called "The Eye of the Storm," which has not yet been released in Israel, and in which she plays a terminally ill woman who seeks to control the moment of her death.

Rampling knows that she is frequently named as an example of an actress who does not try to conceal her age. This is also one of the reasons she is more comfortable in Europe, where she says people are less afraid of getting old.

In the very way she presents herself, Rampling says, she is setting out to prove something: that being is of the essence, and this desire to prove, to experience, to learn - in short, to live and to be - is what characterizes her long and, yes, fascinating career.