Whether discussing Charlotte Rampling or anyone else, we don't all have the same opinions and over the years others have said they found her aloof, imperious, detached. I get that, too, although I've apparently ignored it because there is a mystery about her that has always captivated me. Some of that mystery may come from the fact that she's British-born (and I'm not) and she's never made as many American films as I'd like. She has forced me into watching some subtitled films because I am always anxious to see what she's up to.
Another thing I have always liked about her is her seeming lack of bs. I compare her to Katharine Hepburn on that level. I admire people who call it as they see it. Dancing around the heart of a subject holds precious little appeal for me and I suspect this is at the heart of this woman. I sense her well of strength is complemented by an internal quiet and a complete lack of need to march to anyone else's tune.
She has always been one of the celebrated European arthouse queens. Having made few American films, and fewer yet in Hollywood itself, she has long said she could never have been a Hollywood actress. Born in England in 1946, her mother was a manufacturing heiress who fancied herself a painter and her father a British Army officer who became a NATO commander and had also been an Olympic gold medalist. It was a rather classy upbringing but a cold household. He moved the family to France when young Charlotte was nine.
She attended Jeanne D'Arc Académie pour Jeune Filles in Versailles and later an exclusive boarding school back in England. She and her sister Sarah performed in a cabaret act when they were teenagers and a taste for performing, more than the limelight, was instilled in her. After graduation she stayed in London and was enjoying the carefree early-mid 60s while modeling to make ends meet and having something to do while trying to get a fix on a real job.
All that was taken away from her when she was discovered by a casting agent while walking along a London Street. She had already been taking acting classes but she never dreamt it would all come about this effortlessly. She began with an uncredited role in the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night (1963) and appeared in a couple of other small roles and then entered people's consciences in 1966 in Georgy Girl. She played the more, lively sophisticated flatmate of the poor, ordinary title character played by Lynn Redgrave. They gave Rampling some saucy, provocative, sometime challenging lines, the type that would be her calling card forever more.
Unfortunately, Rampling will always remember 1966 in darker tones because her beloved older sister, Sarah, 23, killed herself after having a baby in Buenos Aires. Rampling, of course, was shattered by the loss, adding that she never really got over it. For a spell she withdrew into herself and admitted that she saw life far different than she ever had. She made a rather conscious choice to stop having fun. Despite being new to movies, she chose to take a break. She worked little for the remainder of the 60s.
She would become forever remembered for two Nazi-inspired films she made with Dirk Bogarde. The first, a true horror-fest, The Damned (1969), directed by Luchino Visconti, she was a bit far down in the cast as a young wife sent to a concentration camp. I thought it was well done but despite my occasional tendency to see films more than once in the theater, I knew this was a once-and-done movie if there ever was one.
When Bogarde asked Visconti why he chose Rampling, the great director circled his eyes and said the look. See her photos and try not to see it... it is that obvious. The actress herself contends it has nothing to do with anything outside of heavy eyelids.
She married a New Zealand actor, Bryan Southcombe, in 1972 and had a son that same year. They all shared a flat with a male model and she acquired a little more notoriety than she cared for when it was presumed they were enjoying a ménàge a trois, to which Rampling has always put the kibosh.
She and Bogarde play a holocaust survivor and the Nazi officer who tortures her in The Night Porter (1974) and who resume their sado-masochistic relationship after the war is over. The film would make her internationally famous. Who doesn't enjoy a tasty read on S&M, sex dripping from every syllable and debauchery floating in most paragraphs? Apparently, I didn't. I don't know if those are the reasons I didn't like it but I sure know I didn't at all like how the story was laid out, ploddingly dull as it is. On the other hand, Rampling was unforgettable.
She has always been a seductive actress. The look is seductive, the temperament is as well. It serves her completely in her more femme fatale roles but she weaves these same webs in nicer ones. She knows how to lure. When she wants someone to tell her something or give her something, she knows just the right things to say. She knows how to pepper opening conversations with just enough forthrightness and then steps back and almost extracts from another exactly what she wants. Very seductive. It doesn't always happen that I am quite this taken with actors I like but I am fascinated how she coaxes me to sit up and pay attention.
By the mid 1970s she started getting offers to do some American films. She may have been a little guarded about it and it was flattering for sure. There is always the incentive of the exposure a good American film would provide. At the same time this was an actress who was entrenched in French films and it would forever be that way. From the time of her move there as a child, she greatly identified with the French way of life and would live in Paris for most of her adult life although she also maintained a home in Chelsea. Like Bogarde, with whom she remained friends, they both enjoyed France as a home base. She has, however, always lived the life of an outsider in France and she appears to like it. I'm a legitimate foreigner. I'm an Englishwoman speaking French. They have no references for me, or my life, or my childhood, my upbringing or my schooling. I'm exotic. They like that and I like that.
While the world stood up and took notice of Charlotte Rampling as a result of The Night Porter, America came running with a contract for her to costar opposite Robert Mitchum in Farewell My Lovely (1975). Written in novel form by the great Raymond Chandler, it was filmed in 1944 as Murder, My Sweet with Dick Powell and Claire Trevor. The 1975 version stuck a little closer to the novel but was not as successful as the former. I loved both of them. Mitchum is fabulous as detective Philip Marlowe and Rampling no less impressive as a black-hearted vixen whom he has been hired to find.
Listen, I am a fan of movies about big fish where they filet a few of the actors. After the rampaging success of Jaws, they would come, they would all come... we just changed the big fish. It was a killer whale in Orca (1977) and of course, I loved it from a pure Saturday afternoon, popcorn-gobbling experience. I thought Rampling turned in a listless performance but perhaps it was the silliness of it all. Or perhaps it was something else.
In 1977 she divorced Southcombe and married composer Jean-Michel Jarre and had another son.
Stardust Memories (1980) is a parody of Federico Fellini's 81/2, directed, written by and starring Woody Allen. It concerns a filmmaker recalling the loves of his life and we the audience get to meet them through a series of vignettes. Rampling looked like she was enjoying the hell out of her comedic role.
My favorite of all of her work was opposite Paul Newman in Sidney Lumet's The Verdict (1982). It may not be my favorite Newman role but he was never better as a down-on-his-luck lawyer who takes on a medical malpractice case just to hopefully bolster his standing in the community. What he learns is to do the right thing. Rampling is his doubting, ego-crushing galpal, James Mason is the defense attorney and Jack Warden is Newman's ex-law partner and all are electrifying. If you like trial movies, they just don't get any better.
Comedy came calling again when she made Max mon amour (1986), where she falls in love with a chimpanzee and the feeling is mutual. Ok, slap yourself and get over it. Here's some proof:
She was asked whether it was difficult acting with a chimp. No, no, she said, the emotions were the same. In a way it was like playing opposite Paul Newman. The chimpanzee acted differently, that's all. That's probably because the chimp didn't guzzle beer like Newman did.
After starring in a goodly number of French films, she took on a smaller but still important role in the lavish British film, The Wings of the Dove (1997). Based on a Henry James novel, Rampling plays the rich aunt of Helena Bonham Carter who wants her niece to live the life of luxury only if she gives up several things, including her journalist beau (Linus Roache). It is a richly-textured tale involving an American woman (Allison Elliott) and deserves to be seen by all those who love those period British things.
In 1997 her marriage to Jarre was dissolved when Rampling learned he had been involved in extramarital relationships. It led to a nervous breakdown for the actress, never in tip-top shape since her sister's death. She was depressed through most of the nineties and while those events certainly got her started, she had moved on to being depressed about most everything.
In 2002 she added recording artist to her résumé when she released a cache of songs done as cabaret and titled As a Woman.
So far the 2000s have been very productive for Rampling, some of which was caused by her becoming a muse for director François Ozon. They have worked together several times but the most successful were Under the Sand (2000) and The Swimming Pool (2003). The former has Rampling as a professor who begins to mentally deteriorate after her husband goes missing. Imagine what she brought to a role like this and what she set herself up to learn as a human being who's been suffering.
Swimming Pool has that same tactile feeling one gets with Under the Tuscan Sun, A Good Year and all those other films with those stately mansions bathed in gorgeous European sunshine. Despite those pesky subtitles for most of the film, it remains another of my favorite Rampling films. She is a British writer who is seeking inspiration for a new work and hopes to find it at her publisher's beautiful French chateau. Since she is promised peace because it is empty, she doesn't bargain for the arrival of his gypsy-footed daughter and her attendant problems spoiling things. And do they ever. With all said, Swimming Pool is a mystery that provides a juicy final 15 minutes. Rampling dazzles and Ludivine Sagnier and Charles Dance meet her all the way.
In the thriller vein, I was certainly up for The Statement (2003). Michael Caine plays an ex-Nazi executioner who becomes a target of hit men and the cops. Beautiful European locales aid in a great cat and mouse adventure. I know I liked it more than some of the critics. Rambling had a small role as Caine's separated wife and of course I couldn't take my eyes off her.
The last movie I have seen her in was 45 Years (2015), a quotidian story of a marriage, which I reviewed earlier. It, too, was one of her best roles and how few actresses of her age have done their best work in their 70s and older. Most seem to be British. She gives one of her more natural, heartfelt performances as part of a couple whose life takes a turn right around their 45th wedding anniversary. Her gift as an actress is in doing less and yet with one of the most expressive faces in the business.
She said once I don't usually make films to entertain people. I choose the parts that challenge me to break through my own barriers. A need to devour, punish, humiliate or surrender seems to be a primal part of human nature and it's certainly a big part of sex. To discover what normal means, you have to surf a tide of weirdness.
So many of her characters have been tough but quietly so. These people generally keep their own counsel but are not shy about sharing if the situation calls for it. Surely this speaks of the lady herself. She always had a bit of a stern look, enhanced as she's
aged and looking so natural if not unadorned, there's little doubt as to why she often seemed to thrive in villainy on the screen. I expect one could count her weak characters on one hand. I see her as one who is seeking the truth in her own life and thoughts through her acting and she finds it by allowing us to see a 1,000 little things in those characters. Rampling is a uniquely, expressive actress, even down to the smallest gestures.
I have actually seen just a few of her 83 films because so much of her extensive career has played out in Europe, certainly, and France specifically. As much as I love listening to that beautiful language, I usually opt out of reading during my movies, as I have said. The downside to that one is that I have missed a great deal of Rampling's work. I have, however, been charged up to see her in all that I have, which are the ones mentioned here.
And there's more to come. Retirement doesn't seem to be in this lady's future. She has six films either in the can and awaiting release or in post-production or looking for a starting date. A busy lady. A great actress. A survivor.
Max in English