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.

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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