Always intriguing and never less than polished or self-assured, Charlotte Rampling is an actress of great dignity and sloe-eyed reserve worthy of her own documentary, and as she ages gracefully, she just ages gracefully and keeps getting better. Those almond-shape, sea green eyes reflect the chlorophyll of life as she sees it. But they can turn gray as dirty rain when her animal instinct and querulous intelligence sense there’s something rotten in Denmark. Her photos are rarely air-brushed, her skin is almost never cosmetically enhanced. At 65, she’s aging like Jeanne Moreau—lines and dewlaps intact, her mouth a slash of pale sensuality untouched by lipstick. No wonder the British-born, multilingual star of so many varied and controversial film classics is often labeled provocative and sexual. I used to see her every year in Cannes, promoting everything from dark, disturbing dramas (Luchino Visconti’s The Damned, Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter) to randy comedies such as The Knack and Georgy Girl. I found her friendly and intense, but difficult to access. She’s never been a touchy-feely cream puff. Now, after seeing the personal but emotionally chilly documentary Charlotte Rampling: The Look, I know why.
Good documentaries investigate the subject of their inquiry and make you feel like you know them better. Ms. Rampling talks a blue streak, but you feel like you’ve only been formally introduced. She talks about the emotional nightmare of acting, doing over and over again until you get it right. But she also shrugs off her profession with “I never spend any time at all looking at my films … if you believe you are that person, then you are that person.” Occasionally a ray of rare vulnerability breaks through that she’s keenly adept at hiding, like how she felt when she was attacked and savaged in print by Pauline Kael. But mostly she’s fencing with words, always poised and on guard. I have no idea what she’s thinking, and sometimes I don’t even know what she’s talking about. Like most actors, she’s much more interesting onscreen than as herself.
La Piscine, The Verdict, The Damned and Le Sud relieve the tedium. Still, the film consists almost entirely of one voice—hers—rambling about the aesthetics of acting, the strategy of surviving the spotlight, and performing as a fantastic way of communicating—a skill she’s not very good at without a script. “I just put myself into a space like a space you get into when you’re meditating, which is like an empty space, which is devoid of anything in particular.” Say what? This is a perfect example of what Brando meant when he said, “Actors who talk about themselves and try to explain the mysteries of their craft end up with fools for an audience.”
About her own audience: “I say it doesn’t really matter if they don’t like me as a person, but it always does a bit because we’re not that confident enough as human beings to think we can go through life not being liked. We do not want people to think we’re monsters but I’ve had a lot of people think I’m a monster anyway so I probably am a bit. The first thing everybody says about somebody well known is, ‘Are they nice?’ So quite often I think it’s just better to be a monster.” It’s not exactly riveting to listen to her philosophize about the aging process that differentiates sensuality from sexuality, but I admit it is unusual to meet an aging actress who also claims to be grounded and unafraid face reality. Then she says she believes in an afterlife but is distressed that she has no proof that it exists, and changes the subject to the vicissitudes of suicide. Love, fear, withdrawal, solitude, female freedom, independence, death—the subjects float by like changing parasols. She talks about them superficially, revealing nothing about her personal life. I especially like this one about pain: “The best remedy for any form of pain is to just let it happen to you. It’s the resistance that is the most painful pain, both physical and psychological.” She’s been reading a lot of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and Krafft-Ebing. On acting: “I don’t know what’s going to happen at all before I start to play a character—and I don’t want to know.” Acting students can learn a lot from that one.
As agreeable as she is to watch, the disappointing thing I feel is that she plays everything the same way. For a film about one person that reveals so little about the subject, 94 minutes is longer than it sounds. My advice is to wait for the DVD. This is definitely a movie to watch with a remote control.
CHARLOTTE RAMPLING: THE LOOK
Running time 90 minutes
Written by Angelina Maccarone
Directed by Angelina Maccarone
Starring Charlotte Rampling, Peter Lindbergh and Paul Auster