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Charlotte Rampling has made a career from channelling her powerful sex appeal into confronting and risky roles. By Isabella Trimboli.

Actor Charlotte Rampling

Charlotte Rampling.
Charlotte Rampling.
Credit: Manuel Romano / NurPhoto via Getty Images

Too often when sex appears on screen, it is only there to teach us a lesson – though never about pleasure or desire. God forbid it ever leaves its audience feeling repulsed or mystified, the way actual sex sometimes does. What we get is perfected bodies hammering it out, doing an efficient but boring job with zero eros or mess. Complications are nullified and deviance is frequently conflated with self-destruction.

This is largely a Hollywood problem, although it’s seeping into independent cinema. I’m exaggerating a bit, but watch the strange, great oeuvre of Charlotte Rampling and maybe you’ll agree with me. The 76-year-old British actor, known in her adopted home of France as “La Légende”, has spent nearly six decades making confronting cinema and charting primal desires, perversion and painful psychological worlds that often remain hidden.

Her career has scraped up against Hollywood – she recently starred as the menacing Reverend Mother in Denis Villeneuve’s blockbuster Dune – but has never succumbed to it. Since the late ’60s, Rampling has preferred to work in Europe and Britain, lending her enigmatic gifts to characters that undo assumptions. If she is a mother or matriarch on screen, she is the withholding, vicious, incredibly bitchy kind. If she’s a wife, it’s a wife burdened by secrets or her own secret, wretched inner life. If she’s the love interest, side piece or companion to the male lead, it’s often in service of manipulation or deception.

Popularity has never factored into her career choices. Rather, she has selected roles that require discomfort and risk as a way to learn about human nature and herself. “I would always be making leaps of faith because I believed in something,” she tells me over the phone, speaking from her apartment in Paris. “That’s what carried me all along, actually.”

Her latest film, Juniper, is a rare leap to the Antipodes. It’s in line with the quiet, austere dramas that Rampling has gravitated towards in the past few years.

“It’s cinema d’auteur,” she says of Matthew J. Saville’s debut as a feature film director. “It’s a way of telling stories that I prefer, that’s more my style.”

The New Zealand film is about a suicidal teen named Sam, whose plan to die is interrupted by the arrival of his British grandmother Ruth (Rampling), a former war photographer with an injured leg whom he’s never met. Confined to a chair, she spends her days sipping methodically from a giant glass of gin, hurling insults – “little shit” is her favourite – and sometimes objects at her grandson’s head. “I wouldn’t play her for money in darts,” Saville said of working with Rampling. “She nailed throwing those glass tumblers with deadly accuracy! A one-take wonder.” She also tries to pay off a priest to get into heaven and refuses a catheter because it could interfere with sex. But hostility soon dissolves into understanding between the afflicted grandson and grandmother.

Rampling’s performance is formidable. The little jabs from her grandson reveal dents in her armour but the cruelty is metabolised and thrown back with equal force. Rampling’s famous pitiless gaze – known throughout her career simply as “The Look” – and the way she bites off each line of dialogue captures the tension between refusing sympathy and being reliant on care, as well as an inarticulate desire for intimacy. In one of the film’s best scenes, Ruth is found sulking in her bedroom after convincing her grandson to throw a party while his father is away, hiding from the teenagers who are huddled near fire pits, sculling beer and dressed in a variety of flannel shirts. Her issue? She was hoping for “sophisticated carnage”.

Sophisticated carnage is one way to describe Rampling’s life and work in cinema. She was born in 1946. Her mother was a manufacturing heiress and painter and her father was an Olympic gold medallist turned army officer. Her upbringing was peripatetic and posh: she attended a host of haughty private schools, including the Jeanne d’Arc Académie pour Jeunes Filles in Versailles. She started performing with her sister as a teenager, singing chansons at local theatres. She details her life in her slender memoir Who I Am, which shuns talk of acting and celebrity for family history, discussions of her mother’s lavender-inked diaries and stories about her sister, whose suicide in 1966 altered the course of Rampling’s life. In previous interviews, she has spoken about how her sister’s death ended her hedonistic ’60s and how she used performance as a way to work through grief.

Rampling’s career began at 17 when she was spotted by a casting agent in a secretarial pool. After a few stints in commercials and modelling, her breakthrough came via British comedy Georgy Girl (1966), where her character, Meredith – a mean violinist with a ravenous appetite for men and fun, and the foil to the frumpy, unlucky lead – would serve as a template for her future publicly reviled roles. Her foray into great European cinema started with Luchino Visconti’s luscious and controversial historical drama The Damned (1969), which charts the depraved dealings and behaviours of a rich German industrial family who become entangled with the Nazi Party. Rampling’s appearance is small – a stricken wife pleading to leave Germany and reunite with her exiled husband – but it was enough to cement her status as an unafraid actress drawn towards difficult, unpredictable characters.

“There were no holds barred,” Rampling says of that time. “They would just go for it … You had incredible films from different directors, extraordinary things that were outrageous and incorrect and this, that and the other. [But] it wasn’t perceived as that. It was experimentation, of going deep into the psyche of taboos or forbidden things, or getting under the carpets, a way of seeing things that hadn’t been exposed before.”

Rampling’s career has been classified in terms of sexual and psychological provocation, but it’s more accurate to call her one of cinema’s great chroniclers of complicated pleasure, especially of the kind that arises out of surrender. The most notorious example is Liliana Cavani’s sadomasochistic Nazi drama The Night Porter (1974), a film that was flayed because it depicted the affair between a concentration camp survivor (Rampling) and her one-time captor (Dirk Bogarde), an SS officer. Watching the film now, its taboo-shattering scandalousness comes off as silly and obvious. But Rampling’s unsettling performance of willing capitulation, childlike gestures and volcanic eruptions moves the film beyond hollow erotics. She captures how the boundary between terror and longing can easily collapse and shows how freedom after captivity might be its own form of torture.

Submission is also a characteristic of Giuseppe Patroni Griffi’s adaptation of ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore (1971), in which Rampling plays the sister at the centre of John Ford’s 17th-century incest tragedy. It’s visible too in the sci-fi film Zardoz (1974), in which Rampling, the leader of a group of crochet-wearing intellectuals who have cracked the code to eternal life, falls for the charms of a brutish genius. In Nagisa Ōshima’s take on a Buñuelian satire, Max Mon Amour (1986), she plays a diplomat’s wife who is having an affair with a chimp she locked eyes with at the zoo.

In François Ozon’s Swimming Pool (2003), Rampling stars as a repressed British crime novelist on a working holiday at her publisher’s villa in the south of France. Her regimented days involve writing for hours in her bedroom and eating enormous bowls of yoghurt until she surrenders to her decadent, sensual and eventually violent surroundings. In one scene she takes herself to a cafe where she gobbles up a pastry like a malnourished infant, her chocolate-smeared mouth cracking into a thin smile of relief. Much has been made of Rampling’s gaze, but how she stretches her mouth or locks her jaw to reveal the secret agony, private amusement or encroaching mania of her characters is equally captivating.

Swimming Pool was her second film with Ozon, following the haunting holiday drama Under the Sand (2000). These films marked a resurgence for Rampling, who remained largely out of the public eye for a decade due to debilitating depression and her second husband’s affair, which generated headlines in the French tabloids.

Rampling speaks about her work in romantic terms. I find this heartening – especially when so many actors in her position could have easily become jaded or boringly pragmatic. She tells me she wanted to make her storytelling on screen align with what she was going through in her own life.

“All of this I was not necessarily doing consciously, but I realised that I was turning things down that were either of a different nature, or they were more Hollywood-based films or bigger films,” she says. “I realised that was not my journey. I wasn’t thinking about my career. I was thinking of accompanying my life with films.”

Since her return to the screen she has amassed accolades that previously remained elusive. She was nominated for an Oscar – which came with its own controversy after Rampling rejected the accusations of racism towards the Academy after the all-white 2016 nominees, a comment for which she later apologised – for Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years (2015) and picked up the Volpi Cup for best actress at the Venice Film Festival for Hannah (2017). Her performances in both are gruelling and moving.

Reading praise of her recent work, I was frustrated by what commonly constitutes a revelatory performance or denotes seriousness. One review, for instance, called Rampling “a one-time femme fatale who has matured into a peerless performer”. The implication is that sex appeal is incongruent with skill. Or that maybe the more glamorous and sexually overt work was somehow less truthful and that these attributes need to be forfeited in order to access authenticity. This seems a narrow-minded, conservative dichotomy. Throughout Rampling’s career, sex appeal has been a way to explore challenging, contradictory and layered emotional worlds.

Her libidinal charge on screen – which Rampling describes as a “calling” – hasn’t abated. Last year she played the ruthless abbess in Paul Verhoeven’s plague-ridden lesbian nun drama Benedetta (2021). In the spy thriller Red Sparrow (2018), she performed as the “Matron”, doling out demented lessons on seduction and manipulation to a class of Russian agent hopefuls.

“I’m cast because … because they know that I can deliver it,” she says, letting out a big, deep laugh. “You can’t vehicle what you don’t actually have. That’s the thing about acting, people are cast because they’re sort of close to that … you have to have the inner essence of something that is believable for people. You can’t act invisible things, you can only act manifestations of something that you have. … I know that I have sexual power on screen. I’ve seen it, I saw it right at the beginning. I had no idea, because it’s not something that I connect with in real life in that way. These are the things that your own sort of invisibility reveals to you.”

When we spoke, Rampling had just returned from Italy, where she’d been performing Shakespeare’s sonnets in theatres as a friend accompanied her on the cello. She is working on more films, something “big”, something “lovely … if it works, and if it is going to be produced”. She is still driven by the impulses that guided the beginning of her career: to act in small films that test her limits, that serve as a kind of education.

“I’ve never changed because I’ve never had to change … [even] with all the ups and downs of my own life,” Rampling tells me. “People say, ‘You do these strange films that nobody sees’, and I say, ‘But yeah, that’s what I want to do. It doesn’t matter how many people see my films.’  ”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 30, 2022 as "Uncomfortable truths".

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Isabella Trimboli is a writer and critic based in Melbourne.

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