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Gilbey on Film: In praise of Charlotte Rampling

Cinema's great enigma.

Charlotte Rampling
Charlotte Rampling (Photo: Getty Images)

A few months ago I was participating in a radio discussion on women in the film industry. When the host asked me to name my favourite actress - or, as she put it, “powerfrau”- one name came unexpectedly to mind: Charlotte Rampling. That regally feline face with its disdainful eyes, vividly alert behind their heavy lids, peered out from my memory, raising an approving eyebrow.

I hadn’t thought about Rampling for ages, though I had savoured her recent run of small, rather tart performances: a dead-behind-the-eyes divorcée in Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime, the doom-laden mother of the bride in Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, the prim, sad headmistress at a school for clones in the film version of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go. Perhaps it was the phrasing of the question which led me to Rampling. (“Powerfrau” has unmistakable connotations, and I believe a recently unearthed birth certificate proves that Rampling’s middle name really is “imperious.”) Or maybe my admiration for her had soaked so deeply into my bones over the years that I had taken her magnificence for granted - only to find her name within easy reach when the question of favourites was raised.

A documentary about Rampling has just been released on DVD. The Look is unconventional: it’s described perfectly in the opening credits as “a self-portrait through others”. Rather than focusing exclusively on Rampling, the director Angelina Maccarone allows filmed conversations between the actress and her friends to predominate.

In London, Paris and New York, Rampling muses on subjects including exposure, mystery and mortality. The photographer Peter Lindbergh joins her to break bread and mull over the effects of age on a face admirably free of nips or tucks. (She recalls Luchino Visconti’s answer to her concerns about playing a woman ten years her senior in his 1969 film The Damned: “I can see it behind your eyes. You are any age.” So true. ) Paul Auster, who calls her “Lady Charlotte,” dishes up mugs of steaming tea on his boat in New York harbour, and laments the slapdash treatment of older actresses. Rampling’s son, Barnaby Southcombe, does acting exercises with her in a boxing ring. Then mother dons the gloves.

Another photographer, Juergen Teller, joins her on a staircase (tellingly, Rampling is one step higher) and reflects on the photographs on which they collaborated in the 2005 book Louis XV. One shows Rampling resting her head on the snapper’s naked thigh, her sharp-boned face centimetres from his rumpled penis. In another, which heightens the actress’s composure and aloofness by placing her in close proximity to the profane, Rampling sits demurely at the piano while Teller lies naked on his back on top of the instrument, knees raised and legs spread.

The film examines her pivotal roles - from her sex kitten with claws out in Georgy Girl (1966) to the concentration camp survivor in The Night Porter (1974) and a diplomat’s wife who falls for a chimpanzee in the underrated, Buñuelian Max Mon Amour (1990). Illuminating commentary from Rampling explains how her daring choice of work expresses wider ideas about art. “The entertainment side of cinema didn’t interest me,” she says, “so much as the discovery of what cinema can do to the human mind.” She is eloquent also on her collaborations with François Ozon, which began with Under the Sand (2000), a film that contains her most complex and moving performance. Included in The Look is the unforgettable morgue scene from Under the Sand, in which she conveys waves of grief, fear and astonishment, all while her face is obscured largely by a mask.

At first I was rattled by Maccarone’s austere refusal to employ explanatory subtitles or captions for films and interviewees, but then it began to make a brilliant kind of sense. The crowning achievement of The Look, you see, is in the editing: it moves almost seamlessly from shots of Rampling in her daily life to excerpts from her work, encouraging us to overlook any joins and to collude in the idea of art and life as one fluid, inseparable entity. She strolls across the room in The Look only to appear magically in the bedroom in Heading South, the 2006 picture in which she played the sex tourist Ellen (“I don’t think Ellen could enjoy anything”). She looks out across an overcast East Coast beach beneath the gaze of Maccarone’s camera, and we cut to a sunnier seafront in Under the Sand. The movie doesn’t crack or undermine the enigma of Charlotte Rampling; it celebrates and intensifies it.

"The Look" is out now on DVD.