With those exotically hooded, ice water eyes, house cat remoteness and taste for psychologically swampy film roles, Charlotte Rampling is a movie icon for the ages. An art-film goddess who has acted for a shockingly diverse range of talents including Lars von Trier, Woody Allen, Luchino Visconti, and John Boorman, Rampling was the gateway drug for future practitioners of iconoclastic onscreen femininity including Isabelle Huppert, Tilda Swinton, and Helen Mirren.
Rampling’s charm is so abundant, she’s become a verb in her native England. “To rample” is to reduce a man to wet-noodle status with one’s icy sexiness, according to the British press. Offering a female equivalent to the thousand-yard stares of Sergio Leone-era Clint Eastwood and vintage Lee Marvin, Rampling has been the bewitching embodiment of badass mystery doled out every ten years or so in the form of a Marlene Dietrich or Lauren Bacall.
“I’m often labeled as someone difficult to access,” says Rampling early on in the documentary portrait of her seductive mystique, Charlotte Rampling: The Look. While most actresses suggestively offer themselves up for an audience, Rampling has kept her inner life in reserve. Rampling has stated that she makes films as an exercise in self-knowledge and testing boundaries rather than for anything as pedestrian as entertainment. Part of her deep-freeze fierceness is no doubt the feeling audiences have contemplating her onscreen that, unlike the smiling crowd pleasers: Charlotte. Rampling. Could. Give. A. Damn.
And now Rampling has taken on another sphinx-like performance, playing herself in this documentary that purports to give access into the actress’s inner cerebral sanctum. But in truth, Rampling’s notorious reserve only continues in The Look directed by German filmmaker Angelina Maccarone.
At age 65, Rampling hasn’t softened or caved, but has kept an aura of mystery draped around her like a heavy wool coat. Over the course of the film she moves from Paris to Manhattan, from house boats to photo studios and from novelist Paul Auster to poet Frederick Seidel, ruminating on a variety of topics interspersed with clips from Rampling’s films, including Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980) and Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict (1982).
Broken up into impossibly weighty chapters—Beauty, Desire, Exposure, Taboo, Age, Love, Resonance, Demons—the film offers episodic fugues in which Rampling talks around the subject at hand. There are periodic moments of humor. In the “Exposure” portion of the film where she chats with photographer and friend Peter Lindbergh, Rampling pooh-poohs the notion that she is “brave” because Lindbergh once photographed her without makeup. For a woman who has taken this many creative risks, who film critic Pauline Kael once famously trashed as “degrading to women” for her controversial turn in The Night Porter (1974), appearing without lipstick or mascara is the least of her insubordinations.
Tapping into deep reserves of sadness, haughtiness, repression and sexual provocation, Rampling’s unusual film roles have endeared her to several generations of film fans. Rampling played a Holocaust survivor engaged in a sado-masochistic relationship with her former Nazi persecutor (Dirk Bogarde) in Visconti’s transgressive The Night Porter, perhaps her most notorious role. In the singularly bizarre Max Mon Amour (1986) directed by Nagisa Oshima, Rampling portrayed an upper-class woman in love with a non-CGI monkey. And in Francois Ozon’s Swimming Pool (2003) Rampling was a sexually repressed writer observing the outrageous erotic antics of her publisher’s daughter (Ludivine Sagnier). In the ground breakingly frank 1966 British drama Georgy Girl, Rampling was the abrasive, beautiful Meredith, who winds up pregnant and frankly disgusted by her circumstance. Sitting in her hospital bed post-delivery filing her nails, she tells the father of the cooing infant, “It’s hideous. I hate it.”
In many of her film roles Rampling is repeatedly cast as a woman adrift in otherworldly, far flung places: the water’s edge, A WWII concentration camp, a remote vacation spot. She stares out into the void, contemplating eternity. It’s an edge of the earth circumstance that only emphasizes her mythic qualities. Death, lurking in the wings, is also a leitmotif of her films, whether the wife whose husband disappears into the sea while she lies on the beach in Under the Sand (2000) or the headmistress keeping the real news of their life’s purpose from the schoolchildren in the haunting allegory Never Let Me Go (2010). Outside her film roles, Rampling has served as muse to the official shutterbug of Amazonian women, Helmut Newton, early in his career. More recently Rampling was photographed in scenes both tender and uproarious next to a full-frontal Juergen Teller frolicking in a mussed bed for a 2004 Marc Jacobs fashion campaign. In the “Taboo” section of the film Teller and Rampling are cozy and adoring discussing the shocked reception by American critics like Pauline Kael and Vincent Camby to The Night Porter alongside images of Teller’s uncircumcised penis dangling like a fishing lure. In the bawdy images Rampling smiles sweetly like a doting mother with an especially unruly, pink-fleshed child.
Rampling has always suggested a controlled, eerily self-possessed presence on screen. And lest we think Maccarone is in full control of The Look, Rampling relentlessly maintains the upper hand. As Rampling told the British Guardian newspaper about her final cut approval on the project, “If this film is about me then I have to accept it, and if I can’t accept it, I have to know it can be destroyed. I’d rather it didn’t exist if it wasn’t something I couldn’t recognise as being in some way close to who I am.” Exercising an in utero right to excise, Rampling cuts Maccarone off when she gets too close to sensitive topics like her younger sister Sarah Morton’s death by suicide at age 23. Maccarone’s film promises the enticing possibility of coaxing revelation from that Arctic facade. But it’s a mirage of truthfulness. A trick.
In the film Rampling indicates that, like her sister, she has also experienced morbid thoughts of early death. But that revelation is unmoored, never related to any particular moment in her life. Is it a family disposition? The result of some tangible unhappiness in her life? The film remains opaque on this and many other fronts. Rampling never truly loosens her death grip on self-possession. As a result, the film is both utterly in keeping with her exacting onscreen persona, and a terminal frustration, a conceptual exercise that neither answers the big questions it sets out to or offers the penetrating insight into Rampling one longs for.
There are fleeting hints of revelation. In the “Love” segment, Rampling paints in a sunny atelier. But rather than discuss her art, Rampling is joined in the studio by writer-director Joy Fleury and her daughter who look like they popped by before heading to Saturday shopping at Galeries Lafayette. They curl up on a bed to discuss “Love.” Naturally, Rampling has experienced it. Names are withheld. The conversation feels like the whispered confidences of a high school sleepover.
Below deck on Paul Auster’s houseboat, Rampling and the novelist drink tea and discuss whether women of a certain age can be beautiful. “I think you’re beautiful. As beautiful as you ever were,” Auster coos. It’s one of many cringe-inducing moments. You feel embarrassment for Rampling at being placed in the uncomfortable position of being reassured she is still lovely. You feel embarrassment at the awkward, superficial attempts to burrow into enormously weighty ideas like “Desire.” What flesh and blood woman can buoy such enormous concepts? Even the formidable, supernaturally beautiful, chillingly self-possessed Rampling is no match for a film so heavily weighted toward capital “I” insight and plumbing life’s ultimate mysteries. Simple revelation would have been enough.
Charlotte Rampling: The Look opens February 3 at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.