Gilbey on Film: In praise of Charlotte Rampling

Cinema's great enigma.

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.

Charlotte Rampling (Photo: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

Show Hide image

Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

0800 7318496