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

In the name of the father: Patricia Lockwood on sex, centaurs and Catholicism

The author of the viral poem “Rape Joke” talks about growing up with her gun-toting Catholic “priestdaddy”.

“Oh my fricking God. It’s a centaur.” The American poet Patricia Lockwood and I are in the lobby of a Whitehall hotel and she is finding the quantity of equine art distracting. I have already been skipped along a corridor to examine the bizarrely detailed rendering of a horse’s anus in a Napoleonic painting (“They made a point of doing him straight up the butt”) that turns out to be a copy of Théodore Géricault’s Charging Chasseur. Now a statue on the mantelpiece has caught her eye, prompting a reverie on what she saw at the British Museum a couple of days ago: “A wonderful statue of a man kneeing a centaur in the balls. It’s the most important thing to me there. It’s so beautiful.”

The confluence of violence, sex, orifices, animals and mythology runs throughout Lockwood’s work in wild and witty poems such as “The Whole World Gets Together and Gangbangs a Deer” (inspired by the realisation that “Bambi is a puberty movie”) and “Revealing Nature Photographs” (pastoral verse meets porn spam) – and it also colours her new book, Priestdaddy, a deeply idiosyncratic family memoir in which copulation is a go-to metaphor. Her dad’s frenzied, tuneless playing raises the prospect that he might be “having sex with the guitar”; during Lockwood’s teenage depression, she writes, the only thing she was having sex with “was the intolerable sadness of the human condition, which sucked so much in bed”.

Lockwood (pictured at her First Holy Communion) has dark, cropped hair and elfin features, pearly white nails and sleeping cats on her knees (an effect achieved with decorated tights – “Let this be for the stocking boys,” she says). Her voice is deadpan, frequently dipping into laughter without losing her poise. She is one day off her 35th birthday and has been married since she was 21. Her father, Greg, is a priest and, along with her four siblings in a succession of rectories across the Midwest, she was raised a Catholic – thus ensuring, she says, the permanent sexual warping of her mind.

“We Catholics become perverts because of the way sex is discussed in strictly negative terms. I saw pictures of aborted foetuses before I knew what basic anatomy was.”

As a devout teenager, she attended a youth group called God’s Gang and was given a virginity pledge in the form of a business card. The group leaders had a “very hip and young” approach: “We’re going to tell you every single thing you can do, in explicit terms, and just be like, ‘But don’t do it.’”

The ribald humour of her writing – Lockwood is renowned on Twitter for her surreal “sexts” – often contains a darkness. The poem that made her name, “Rape Joke”, takes her experience of being raped at 19 by a boyfriend and metes it out in discrete, increasingly devastating soundbites and images. It was posted online in 2013 and went viral, leading to a publishing deal for her collection Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals.

After the rape, Lockwood was “absolutely insane” for about five years, but it’s not as if she was entirely happy before: at 16, she had attempted suicide by taking a hundred Tylenol tablets. Her memoir recounts, too, being embedded in a church mired in scandal, a claustrophobic situation that hit home when a priest close to her was arrested for having sex with a 14-year-old boy. Such events led to Lockwood abandoning her faith and escaping with Jason, her future husband, whom she met on an online poetry messageboard.

When Patricia was 30, she and Jason ran out of money and moved back to the rectory, allowing her to observe her parents afresh. The resulting portraits in Priestdaddy are larger than life: her mother, Karen, is a hyperactive generator of mad puns and proverbs; her ex-navy father is a self-mythologising, right-wing whirlwind of talk radio, guns and Tom Clancy novels. Married Catholic priests are rare but Greg, previously a Lutheran minister, got the pope’s permission to convert. Usually to be found in his underwear, he wants for no new expensive gadget or guitar, though the family is expected to make sacrifices. In 2001, two weeks before Patricia – who learned to read at three and was writing poetry at seven – was supposed to leave for college, he told her that they couldn’t afford it. He later “changed the story in his mind so that I had said I don’t need to go”.

“Growing up in my household,” she says, “all of these far-right, retrograde ideas of gender roles and the man as patriarch existed from the very beginning. But I didn’t think of my house as a bellwether of what was going to happen.” It came as no surprise to her that Greg and many like him voted for Trump. When she reported on a Trump rally in February 2016, she “moved like a ghost through the crowd. They saw me as one of their own.”

Anger at her father’s selfishness “would be useless”, and Lockwood respects his sense of vocation, which she feels she has inherited. She has believed in her own genius ever since she was writing “mermaids-having-sex-with-Jesus poems” at the age of 19. Jason is her support staff, licking her envelopes and buying her clothes. His offering the previous day was a T-shirt emblazoned with Justin Bieber’s face: it revealed how much she resembles the singer – “a full 90 per cent overlap” – and is definitely not ironic.

“Do you think we only got irony after Christ was crucified?” she wonders, and then spots two black-clad priests in dog collars who have sat down across the room from us. “Ooh,” she exclaims, awed and delighted, and then, in a whisper, ever confident in her powers of creation: “I manifested them.”

“Priestdaddy: A Memoir” is published by Allen Lane. “Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals” is published by Penguin

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

0800 7318496