Danger. Actress At Work
Charlotte Rampling enjoys total exposure in surprise hit about grief
Bob Graham, Chronicle Senior Writer Sunday, May 20, 2001
At age 55, Charlotte Rampling is as exposed as she's ever been, physically and emotionally, in a film. It is French director Francois Ozon's "Under the Sand," in which she has a nude love scene. Fifty-five ain't what it used to be.
"If you're going to go for really total exposure in every sense of the word, " Rampling says, "if you're going to jump off and there will be no net anywhere, then it's totally dangerous. But that's the way this film needed to be made."
The English actress, who has been making movies since "The Knack" in 1965, has a devoted following for her nervy, intense roles. She became an international star in 1974's strange "The Night Porter," with Dirk
Bogarde. In that film she played a former concentration camp inmate who re- enacts a sadomasochistic relationship with an ex-Nazi. She made an absurd comedy, "Max Mon Amour" (1985), in which her lover was a chimpanzee.
Her new film may be just as risky. It is about grief.
"Under the Sand" has surprised everyone, including its star, by becoming something of a hit in France. It opens Friday in San Francisco.
The film's popularity, she says, is "quite mysterious, isn't it? I mean, people of all ages and social groups seeing it."
The French-language film deals with loss and bereavement. A woman goes to the beach with her husband, who is last seen heading for the water and never returns. As Marie, a woman who cannot accept the idea that her husband has drowned, Rampling is in every scene of the 95-minute movie.
No one knows what happened to the husband. Is it possible that he ran away from an unhappy marriage? During the question-and-answer period after the San Francisco International Film Festival's showing of the film, one person wanted to know if Rampling thought Marie had murdered him.
Marie fantasizes that her husband is still present even when she makes love with another man. Surely she is not the first woman who ever fantasized that she was with one man when she actually was with another.
Ozon wanted Rampling to be completely free in her performance, Rampling says, "and I said, 'OK, we'll see what happens.' " The nude lovemaking scene was her decision.
Marie "was going to do what she has to do, whether it's in front of a camera or not," Rampling says. "I don't want to shock people. In a story like this you don't need to shock people with horrible images, but I think I can still get away being more or less naked and not being too horrible. I think I can get away with exposing very much what I have deepest inside me."
Not being too horrible? Rampling's distinctive, delicate beauty, with her high cheekbones and characteristic inquisitive look, is intact. She doesn't have to do anything in particular to stay in shape.
"I don't do anything sportive," she says. "I've got a very well-toned body from my athletic father, who is now 93 and still going strong. The reason for my good muscles is that he was a great athlete."
Her father, Godfrey L. Rampling, a British army officer attached to NATO, was an Olympic medalist at "the Hitler Olympics," the 1936 games in Berlin. Her father won a gold medal in the 400-meter relay and was included in Leni Riefenstahl's film "Olympiad."
Charlotte Rampling, who has lived in Paris for 20 years, is married to composer Jean-Michel Jarre, but they are separated and "haven't actually gotten around" to getting a divorce. They have a son, David, 24, and raised Jarre's daughter, Emilie, 26, together. Rampling has another son, Barnaby Southcombe, 28, from her first marriage.
Rampling says she might have had a good education, "but I ran away from all the schools I was sent to. When my family started to fall apart at an early age, I just went off. So the roles very much from then on reflected that. I was pretty rebellious anyway as a kid. I wouldn't do anything anybody wanted me to, ever."
She selects her roles "on hunches" and says they reflect her own journey through life. "I have a good intellectual mind," she says, "but I don't use it much. I just go on hunches, on feelings."
Many Bay Area moviegoers are familiar with Ozon's work. Last year, two of his feature films, "Criminal Lovers" and "Water Drops on Burning Rocks," came through back to back, and a program of his short films played at the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.
"Under the Sand" was made in two parts, during the summer and winter of last year. Rampling started working on the first part, about the couple's
arrival at their beach house and the man's disappearance, before Ozon finished the script.
"That's the way he wanted it," Rampling says. Although she did not do any actual writing, they collaborated on the second part of the script. There is a time lapse in the story, and "we spent a lot of time together, going to the places where we would be shooting. It was like reinventing Marie. We'd talk about what she would do, what would she be thinking about, what stage of denial would she be in. We would meet once a week and each time we would develop themes that he would put in the screenplay."
Grief sounds like a depressing subject, but Rampling has a hunch why people respond to the film. "It's empathy and generosity of feeling to know how she's going to come to terms with it. You feel somehow connected to the character, that she's going to tell you something."
It's a subject, Rampling says, "that will happen to everybody. They will lose people. They will be abandoned. You have to leave your parents, you have to leave sometimes your lover. There's always the sense of having to abandon things and being abandoned. It's a universal theme that we can't avoid. It's unbelievably difficult to come to terms with, but it's not necessarily depressing. It's very much a part of life. It's very vital."
When Marie talks to her dead husband, the movie takes artistic license to show him. Although we do not see people who have died, Rampling says, "we do talk to them as if in their presence. I know that, and I think most people do. I lost my mother recently, and I'm always talking to her. That's very comforting. It's not something stupid and silly and odd. If Marie were to go on playing this game, it would get really weird and sick, but it's just a transitory stage, with the first major shock of death.
"I really hope that Americans do like this film because it's such a personal investment. To some extent, it's my life's work. It feels like it's all come together. That crystallization is being picked up by people. Otherwise, I wouldn't even mention it."