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.

Photo: Getty
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Poo jokes and pessimism – the scatological legacy of British humour

Is it simply a testament to our good nature, or a sign of a darker kind of cynicism?

Many Brits will have amused themselves this summer by packing a tent, stashing their narcotics and heading over to a muddy field in the middle of nowhere to brave the torrential rain at a music festival.

Wallowing in the mud and other more faecal byproducts to the soundtrack of up-and-coming bands is considered the peak of hedonism for many in the UK, and there is something quintessentially British about the way we willfully embrace the general state of depravity that most of our festivals inevitably collapse into.

One internet meme that perfectly epitomises the difference between British and American festival culture shows an image of a woman at a US event pulling a sad face as she reveals the worst thing she’s seen: “Spitting on the ground.” On her right, a British man slumped in a camping chair holds up his sign, reading: “A man covered in his own shit sniffing ketamine off his mate’s unwashed scrotum.”

There’s a cheerful pride with which Brits embrace bodily dysfunction as a part of our comic culture, and a common trope of British humour involves undermining the stiff upper lip attitude associated with English people, often with an act of complete depravity that dispels any illusion of class and respectability. Britons have always been partial to a good old-fashioned dose of scatological humour, from Chaucer’s bawdy fabliaux that celebrate obscenity, to Shakespeare’s Falstaff, or Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or Swift’s "Scatological Cycle".

Much of the comic effect that these writers create derives from undermining high-brow intellect or spirituality with the low-brow of the rear end – for example the part in Chaucer’s Summoner’s Tale, where the division of an old man’s fart into 12 serves as a parody of the descent of the holy ghost at Pentecost.

Faeces has long since been ingrained in our past literary and historical culture – after all, as the great Shakespeare was writing some of the western world’s most seminal pieces of English literature, his chamber-maid was most likely throwing pieces of his own faeces out of the window next to him.

In English literature, scatological humour can be juvenile, but it has also been used to represent wider social anxieties. In turning bottoms up and exposing the rear end, "shiterature" is often about breaking taboos, and exposing the dirty underbelly of society. Part of the "civilising" process that societies perform to reach a high level of sophistication involves distancing oneself from one’s own excrement, and scatology reverses this by shedding a light on our dirtiest natural habits. Swift’s excremental vision asked us to peel back the mask of genteel individuals, revealing their true and disgusting selves.

Scatology can also represent collective self-disgust, and has been used to question the integrity of a British national identity that has in the past denied its colonial wrongdoings. In Tristram Shandy, the protagonist's porous and leaking diseased body has been interpreted as a metaphor for the British Empire, and indeed the whole being of the Shandean gentleman is sub-textually supported by British colonialism, being as they are descended from merchants who profited from eastern goods sold to the European bourgeois and aristocrats.

Scatology has been used to represent hypochondria, the crisis of the aristocracy, self-disgust and sexual disgust – incidentally all things that we might find at an English festival.

The onslaught of the modern era hasn’t managed to dispel our fondness for injecting sophisticated comedy with snippets of scatological humour. In Peep Show for example, a show largely appreciated for its dry wit and irony, a hilarious scene involves Mark suffering from uncontrollable diarrhea as his boss watches on in disgust. Another brilliant scene is where Jeremy’s employer at the gym confronts him with a plastic bag filled with a human stool, which Jez had used to frame another employee for pooing in the pool.

In a similar vein, one of the most famous scenes in The Inbetweeners is where the uptight Will manages to poo himself during one of his A-level exams. In the second movie, there is another disgusting poo in the pool scene.

In the dark comedy series The Mighty Boosh, characters reference "taking a shit" on objects ranging from a salad, to a swan, to even "your mum". Almost all of these characters (Mark from Peep Show, Will from The Inbetweeners and The Mighty Boosh's Howard Moon) see themselves in some way as representative of a modern British gentleman – prudish, well educated and well spoken. Each of them at points embarrasses themselves and their image with reference to their bowel movements.

It’s a cliché that British humour is about losers, and that we are more prone to self-deprecation than our friends across the pond – a cliché that is not without some truth. 

Admittedly nowadays, much American humour similarly relies on self-deprecation and laughing at the sorry fate of "losers", but cynicism and irony are more fundamental to British comedy. On commenting on the difference between the American and British versions of The Office, Ricky Gervais once said that in the UK: "Failure and disappointment lurk around every corner… We use (irony) as liberally as prepositions in every day speech. We tease our friends. We use sarcasm as a shield and weapon." 

It is certainly true that in Britain, we are particularly pre-occupied with laughing at the failures of the self, and this can manifest itself potently through deprecation of the body.

Maybe the general sense of pessimism that is alluded to so much in the UK is due to our dismal weather, and maybe our ability to laugh at ourselves and our dysfunctions is a simply a testament to our good nature, and something to be applauded. Perhaps it is just something in the air rising from our manure-ploughed green and pleasant lands that inspires in our British comedians the desire to return time and time again to the scatological trope. Or perhaps, if we dig a bit deeper into our dung-fertilised lands, we might find that an anxiety about the foundations of British identity is behind the relentless desire to represent the permeability of the personal and national body.

Should we be embracing our tendency towards self-deprecation, or does it lead to a more problematic kind of cynicism that is restrictive, making us resistant to the idea of radical change? Perhaps we are destined to remain stuck in the mud forever, grumbling about the bad weather as we desperately shelter from the rain under a gazebo, sipping on the dregs of warm beer, pretending we’re having a good time – and who knows? Maybe this is what a good time looks like. Swift once told us to bless the "gaudy tulips raised from dung" – British comedy continues to do so quite literally.