Sense and sensuality
(June 21, 2002)
By Helen Barlow
The name Charlotte Rampling conjures up the image of a sultry, sensual screen idol, of a woman who presented a mix of intelligence and sexual daring in the 1960s and 70s that had never been seen, particularly in her native Britain. From the psychosexual trauma of The Night Porter to the teasing naughtiness of Georgie Girl, Rampling redefined what an actress could do on screen, extending her characters as far as they could go and exploring that territory with them. After a while, though, the exploration became too much, and in the late 80s Rampling took an extended break
"It was for lots of reasons," she now whispers enigmatically. "Mainly existential ones. About me - and what we are doing here. There were a few pertinent questions that needed to be answered - and sometimes that can take a long time."
She has made a few films in the interim, including the Australian movie, Hammers Over the Anvil, where she had an on-screen love affair with Russell Crowe. Displaying a certain amount of instinct at the time, she found the young actor to be "very outdoors and physical in one sense but also in possession of a very interesting sensitivity"
Retaining her slender figure and piercing green eyes, Rampling, at 56, has no qualms about disrobing for her art even after five decades.
She feels reborn in her work and finally the scars seem to have healed from the failure of her marriage to composer Jean-Michel Jarre (they have one son, David, 24, and she has another son, Barnaby, 29, from her first marriage) and is in a relationship with a financier. She lives a quiet life outside Paris.
"There is something about it that smells right, and feels right," she says of her adopted city. "Some French people I love, others I don't. I quite enjoy feeling like an outsider. When you don't live in your own country, you are considered slightly different. I appreciate that. It suits me."
Perhaps it was pertinent that Rampling should return to the spotlight playing a grieving wife in Francois Ozon's French box-office success, Under the Sand. Rather than coping with her husband's disappearance at a beach near their holiday home, her character refuses to believe her partner is dead.
"I've really been quite instinctive in choosing my roles but all through my life as an actor I have wanted to portray women who were fascinating through the difficulties of a particular situation," Rampling says.
In Under The Sand, her character not only has to come to terms with the death of her husband but with all the baggage between them from 25 years of marriage that has remained unresolved.
She tries to rediscover herself with a lover, played by Bruno Cremer, and their sex scenes display their middle-aged physiques without embarrassment.
"I've never had any coyness or problems in that direction," she says. "You look as you look and I'm lucky to have a more or less OK whatever, and then you forget about it. That's definitely the best thing to do."
Working with a director from a different generation appealed to her: "Francois is a very luminous person who brings a lot of joy even though he has his dark world as we all do. He helped to create a really friendly feeling."
He also helped her feel re-energised about acting. She had missed that feeling, that emotional fix.
"When you are not doing the thing that you love most in the world, then you are not living," she says. "Sometimes you need a break and then when you come back it is better than before. The showbusiness part is the icing on the cake. You can have fun with it. All I hope is to continue to do things that I really deeply enjoy creatively - even if they may not come up so often.
"The Hollywood stuff does not interest me. I have no desire to live there and their way is not really my way of making films.
"I gave up on formulaic stuff a long time ago. I have nothing against those movies but they're not for me. Certain stories are told again and again but if there are no surprises in them, then why bother? From a personal viewpoint I have to feel I am inventing something just a little bit along the way."
Most notably Rampling appeared in The Verdict with Paul Newman, Angel Heart with Mickey Rourke and the remake of Farewell My Lovely with Robert Mitchum. She also partnered Sean Connery in the oddball space odyssey Zardoz and Woody Allen on Stardust Memories.
Mostly, though, she has tended towards the dark side and will always be remembered in Liliana Cavani's The Night Porter for her portrayal of a woman in a sadomasochistic relationship with Dirk Bogarde, who became a close friend. It was one of many roles in which she appeared nude. She knew it would cause a scandal when it came out in 1974.
"But I did not know it would enter people's psyches the way it did and still does," she says. "I knew it was a very powerful film and I felt a compulsion to do it. Vampish roles are always ones which appealed to me most. I have enjoyed characters on the darker, more wicked side of experience. Those roles have given me the chance to explore through acting what I would never have had the guts to explore in real life."
She was always careful, however, that her nudity was only employed when the role demanded it: "People see me as some kind of sex symbol which is certainly not how I see myself. When I started out in the 60s, women were emerging and did not want to be seen as clones of Marilyn Monroe or Gina Lollobrigida or Sophia Loren.
"But I found that I had this physical impact on camera which came across without me even having to talk. It's there in the way that you move, look, even think. You can fight it - or go with it.
"Personally I have always gone with it and built on it. It was then that women really stopped being sex objects and became part of the action with the men."
But how long that can last is another question, she says.
"It's quite a challenge to think how long I can be considered sexy but I think I'll know when the time comes and take a curtain call. Then I can go to playing old crones with no sex appeal at all," she says with a grin. "And that will be fine by me."