Gaby Wood, The Observer (London, England), Jan 21, 2001 p3.
The eyes still have it: Men, especially film directors, have always been seduced by her ineffable charms. After the break-up of her marriage and a nervous breakdown, Charlotte Rampling talks about her latest conquest.
CHARLOTTE RAMPLING hasn't changed. 'Yes, it's quite strange,' she says when I tell her this. 'I think I'm going to be like my father, who never really changed. I mean, he got older, but he's remained the same. Some people do that.' She still has that mysterious, feline grace with which she made her name, still has what her sometime co-star Dirk Bogarde described as 'the Look', an epithet not for her Sixties style, but for a certain action in her eyes which could, he said, express horror with extreme power. Visconti showed his cameraman how to frame her face, close up, like a visor, with chin and forehead lopped off.
Today, those eyes seem a screen of smoke or steel; she has a faraway gaze even when she is looking straight at you. There is an almost ethereal otherworldliness about her, and a contrastingly gritty sexuality. She has been living in France for more than a quarter of a century and says she prefers to be a foreigner, 'not to be completely connected anywhere'. The sultry, honeyed voice, the casually held cigarillo, the vague and thoughtful manner of her speech - these are the emblems of Rampling's persona.
She speaks in abstractions, and everything is either thrown into doubt or made so universal it becomes ordinary: 'It's like life,' she says broadly. 'How much actually do you know about much, really? Not very much'; or 'I'm not uncertain about things I'm uncertain about everything, so I'm not really uncertain about anything.' It's hard to know whether to take these musings as barriers or communications, and difficult to see if they are the open-ended constructs of a philosophical mind or the flaky waftings of a Norma Desmond.
I try to navigate through them, interpreting her words according to what I think I know about her life. Pinning them down feels like a job of unusual indiscretion: initially, when speaking about her sister's early death, Rampling comments with a generalising flourish that 'everybody' is in mourning 'at some point'. Her break-up five years ago from her husband, the composer Jean-Michel Jarre, was 'difficult, like everybody's separation is difficult, but it's absolutely fine'. Her depression was just 'confusion nothing special'.
Rampling's latest role, in Francois Ozon's Under the Sand , is that of a woman in denial. It is a wonderful film and, for Rampling, a remarkable return to form. Rampling's character - Marie, a sensual, apparently self-assured woman in her fifties - and her husband set off for their usual summer holiday by the shore, but on the first day, as she is sunbathing, her husband goes for a swim and disappears. Has he left her? Has he drowned? Was it an accident or suicide? Ozon, a young hotshot who directed Sitcom and Water Drops on Burning Rocks , filmed this first section without knowing what would come next.
Six months later, Rampling returned to shoot the rest of the movie, in which she denies her husband's death. What appears at first to be a mystery turns out to be a psychological portrait and, although it's not certain quite to what extent, the denial portion of the film was written in response to Rampling's performance in the earlier sequence.
Unlike most actors, who like to keep their identities separate from the parts they play, Rampling elides the distinction between herself and her roles. You can only play a character if you can find that person somewhere in you, she says, or if you feel ready to expose that part of yourself. Of the Ozon role, she comments: 'She could be me. I'm not acting Marie, I'm just being her.' Perhaps, then, Rampling has already said it all, since through her films it's possible not only to trace her life, but her moods as well, the many facets of her changing self.
RAMPLING MADE her screen debut in Richard Lester's 1965 sex comedy, The Knack, And How To Get It . She was 19. She had wanted to be a singer and, as teenagers, she and her sister had an act in which they sang French songs (their father worked in the army, so both had been to French schools on their travels). But when they were hired by a nightclub, their father put a stop to it and sent Charlotte to secretarial school. She was spotted in a typing pool and cast in an ad for Cadbury's chocolate; the movies came soon after. Her first main part was in a Boulting brothers comedy, Rotten to the Core , but she really shot to fame a year later, in 1966, when she played Lynn Redgrave's catty friend in Georgy Girl . She felt, she now says, 'very much of my time', and she had a look to go with it: sexy, coltish, skinny, free. She was a mini-skirted, Mini Coopered Chelsea girl, and she thought being famous was 'great fun'.
But the Sixties turned into the Seventies very dramatically. When Ram pling was 21, her sister, who was only two years older, died of a brain haemorrhage and, as she puts it, 'my mother almost died out of grief'. 'So,' she comments with a bitter laugh, 'things suddenly weren't swinging any more, quite like they were. I think that's when I tried to understand what the hell was going on, and took parts like Night Porter , and other parts that sort of delved into the human psyche - they weren't just entertainment films. I didn't want to entertain any more. I became very aware of the other side of life, not just having fun.'
Luchino Visconti cast her in The Damned as a young wife who is sent to a concentration camp. A few years later, she survived the camp in Night Porter , still perhaps her most famous role. She played the wife of a successful orchestra conductor who recognises Dirk Bogarde, the night porter of their Viennese hotel, as the Nazi who had been her lover and oppressor during the war. The gruelling flashbacks end up matching the forward progress of the film, as the twisted lovers return irretrievably to their former selves.
She became a Bacall for the Seventies when she starred opposite Robert Mitchum in a remake of Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely , and she kicked off the Eighties as an entrancing depressive in Woody Allen's Stardust Memories ('I think they've been putting something wonderful in your lithium,' Allen whispers in her ear). This, perhaps perversely, is my favourite character of hers. In the film, it is said of her that 'two days a month she was the most fabulous woman in the world. The rest of the time she was a basket case'.
'Yeah,' Rampling says when I quote the phrase to her, 'those are Woody Allen's lines. But that's sort of me anyway. It was very much me, that part.' In her review of the film, Pauline Kael wrote that Rampling 'suggests a decaying goddess', and Woody Allen, who once said his ideal dinner party would include Rampling and Kafka, cast her because, as he put it, 'she reeks from neurosis'. Towards the end of the film, there is an extraordinary sequence of jump-cuts, a Bergmanesque series of close-ups of her face as she rambles and weeps, her moods shifting, her mind shutting down. 'It took a long time to get that,' Rampling now explains. 'It took a long time to work out how you show somebody breaking down.'
When I ask her about her own depression, however, she says: 'I didn't think I was depressive at all. I thought I was very confused, but I thought that was what life was about.' Rampling had a nervous breakdown in 1991. She says now that pure psychoanalysis doesn't suit her, that there are 'other ways you can jump-cut a bit, rather like the scene in the Woody Allen movie, and project people into their own reality quicker', though she is known to have spent some time in a psychiatric clinic in London.
'I thought life was not comfortable,' she goes on, 'and you were always on edge and you were always having difficulties with most things. There really weren't many times when you felt that you were confident about anything. But I thought that was what most people felt. It was nothing special.'
I suggest that she must have managed to avoid the loneliness of it, if she thought everyone felt like that. 'Well,' she replies, switching into the second person, 'no, you do. Yeah, you feel alone also, at that time, there was very little help of the kind there is now, in terms of recognising symptoms in people and being able to talk about them. And so you think, well, it's either just me, or life will come along and help me out, things will happen that will make it different - and quite often they do.'
Rampling first married in 1972, to Brian Southcombe, her manager. They had a son, but by 1977 she had left him for Jean-Michel Jarre and had a child with Jarre. Along with his baby daughter by his previous wife, the new Jarre family set up home in a grand mansion in Versailles. They were the perfect couple of the moment - glamorous, jet-set, successful, in love, and they welcomed people into their house which, with its lawns that swept down to the Seine and its chic art deco furniture, was much remarked upon. Their separation 'evolved', Rampling says, 'over the last five or six years'. Jarre stayed in Versailles and she moved to Paris. Both are now in new relationships.
I ask her if the process has made her feel disappointed in marriage. 'No, not at all,' she says. 'We have a fantastic marriage - I don't see why I should divorce - I mean eventually, if I want to live with another man, but if not it doesn't really make much sense - if he doesn't want to, if I don't want to ' Nothing stays the same,' she explains, 'but it doesn't mean to say it's been a mistake or that you even have to question it.'
WHETHER OR NOT you take this demeanour at face value, Rampling certainly seems to have arrived at a fortress-like strength. If, as she does, you conjoin her parts and her personality, this is a character unrecognisable to those acquainted with her former neurotic incarnation. I tell her she seems impressively unworried about things.
'I'm not worried,' she replies, 'it's true. I was, highly, but now I'm not. It changes as you go along. And the main reason it changes is you decide not to be affected by it. Because you're the only person who has to hang in there with it: if you hate your husband, you have to live with that hate - he's not living with it, he's gone, and you have to live with the hate and the revenge. Unless you go and kill him, and then you're going to be in prison, so what are you actually going to do about it? If you see me calm now it's because you have to turn it right round. Because nobody gives a stuff what you're feeling like, really - nobody, probably in the whole world. That's what I've thought when I've felt really upset about things that have happened to me. It just eats away at you. Suffering is only subjective.'
She thinks for a moment, the bitter toughness melting into something else. 'You see, if you say, "Right, so your husband leaves" - he didn't leave me, it was a natural thing. And actually, what he did for me and how much he helped me no one will ever, ever know. And he needed a break. He didn't leave me, he just needed a break. It so happened that on that break things happened. He might have fallen in love with another woman, but I mean he might then fall out of love with another woman it doesn't break what we have - that's eternal as far as I'm concerned.'
Rampling has taken a long break from filming. 'I didn't want to expose myself, that was all,' she says, 'and my business is total exposure.' She worked in television, things for which she wouldn't have to do publicity, keeping 'very much in the shadows' because she 'didn't want anyone to take any notice of me'.
The recent small parts she has played, such as Miss Havisham in the BBC adaptation of Great Expectations and Helena Bonham Carter's Aunt Maud in Wings of the Dove , have been older, ungenerous women. She was, until now, invisible as herself.
But she has hit a new streak. Earlier this month she was awarded an OBE, 'for services to acting and UK-French cultural relations'. Her character in Under the Sand is, as she puts it, 'much more open and gentle, and shows her fragilities more than other characters I've played'. Rampling says she is 'more willing now to show a lot of stuff that I wouldn't have shown before - it was not for the cinema'.
She is moving on - perhaps (or perhaps not) protecting herself from the past as she goes. She does not, for example, watch her old films ('One day I suppose I will - you need that emotional distance from it'), and when I ask her what she likes to read, she reflects that: 'I don't read biographies very much, perhaps I should. I don't like biographies. It's really rather funny, that, isn't it? Why don't I like to know about people's lives?'
It's loaded rhetoric, and though it is offered up with a casual laugh, her smouldering eyes can still only be seen through a haze of smoke, as Rampling takes comfort in being a stranger.
Under the Sand opens in France next month and here in April. Charlotte Rampling will be interviewed at the NFT in March