Reel Streaming: The Enduring Mystery of Charlotte Rampling
One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 48
By Laurence Lerman
Charlotte Rampling conveys an on-screen presence that pulses with a mix of allure and intelligence and smolder and confidence that is as alchemic as it is enigmatic. And it’s been out there for quite a while now, with Ms. Rampling having quietly amassed a resumé of more than 100 film and television credits over the past 50 years.
Yet even as Rampling has been nominated for dozens of international critics and festival awards over those decades, she’s garnered only three nominations for the circuit’s three most prestigious –– the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes and the Emmys. So it’s fair to say she isn’t considered an “actor’s actor” or even a “people’s favorite.” Studying her lengthy filmography, it’s actually kind of tough to pinpoint any overly rich dramatics or stylized readings in any of her film and television appearances, let alone a standout “classic” line of dialogue. Her work is first-rate and many of the films outstanding, yes, but it feels as if it’s Rampling’s very presence, her potent allure, that has kept her in audiences’ minds for so long. It’s a strange, almost Sphinx-like appeal. A feeling. Again, a presence.
Not even a documentary portrait about her—Angelina Maccarone’s 2011 Charlotte Rampling: The Look—provides much of an answer to the secret behind her catlike eyes, apart from acknowledging that her beguiling “mystique” has been the touchstone of a lengthy and varied career.
The riddle of Rampling continues with the upcoming Benedetta from the always-provocative Paul Verhoeven, which will make its U.S. premiere later this month at the New York Film Festival. Well-received by critics during its international festival rollout, it recounts the true story of a nun in Renaissance Italy who was chastised for her religious visions and lesbian love affairs. Rampling costars as Sister Felicita, the presiding convent abbess who clearly has her work cut out for her.
Rampling also stars in the French language drama Everything Is Fine, her fifth collaboration with the prolific François Ozon. Concerning a woman confronting her father’s declining health, it was recently acquired by a U.S. distributor and is due to roll out here sometime this winter.
And then there’s Dune, Denis Villeneuve’s much-anticipated new adaptation of Frank Herbert’s interstellar masterwork, on deck for wide release in October and featuring Rampling in a vital supporting role.
And so, on the eve of what looks to be the busiest release season she’s had in many years, a curatorial survey of her remarkably wide-ranging films over the past half-century might help provide some answers to the question of Charlotte.
Charlotte Rampling was born in England, raised by her painter mother and British Army officer father in France, Spain and Gibraltar. She was schooled at the Académie Jeanne d'Arc in Versailles and the St. Hilda’s boarding school in Hertfordshire, just north of London. She thus established her continental cred early on, sealing it by making her stage debut at 14 singing French chansons in English theaters as part of a cabaret act with her older sister.
With her sensational cheekbones leading the way, Rampling quickly made the leap from part-time model to full-time actress, making some noise right out of the gate with a juicy supporting role in 1965’s Swinging London romantic comedy-drama Georgy Girl. The British film industry took notice virtually overnight and slipped her into the usual genre offerings over the next several years, including such unremarkable entries as the crime comedy Rotten to the Core (1965) and the adventure flick The Long Duel (1967) opposite Yul Brynner.
A couple of years later, Italy’s Luchino Visconti came knocking and cast Rampling in the acclaimed 1969 historical drama The Damned. Her portrayal of the subdued daughter of an old aristocratic German family who is sent to a concentration camp when the Nazis rise to power raised critics’ eyebrows. It also prompted Rampling's co-star Dirk Bogarde to describe her image as “The Look,” which inspired the title of the aforementioned documentary and forged the path for an international image and career that continues to thrive in Hollywood and around the world.
Rampling would appear alongside Dirk Bogarde again several years later in Liliana Cavani’s 1974 drama The Night Porter, where she played a concentration camp survivor who, after the war, reunites with a former Nazi camp guard (Bogarde) with whom she had a sadomasochistic sexual relationship. Filled with the kind of graphic nudity and depravity one would expect from its plot description, the controversial film firmly established Rampling as the European arthouse cinema’s dark doyenne.
The Seventies and Eighties were a fertile period for Rampling and found her working with such accomplished international filmmakers as John Boorman (in the bizarre 1974 sci-fi fantasy Zardoz), Arturo Ripstein (Foxtrot, 1976), Woody Allen (Stardust Memories, 1980), Claude Lelouch (Vive le vie!, 1984), Jacques Deray (He Died with His Eyes Open, 1985), Alan Parker (Angel Heart, 1986), Nagisa Ōshima (Max, Mon Amour, 1986) and David Hare (Paris by Night, 1988).
Oh, there were turkeys, too. Remember the 1977 Jaws knock-off Orca? Where the highlight featured neither Rampling nor leading man Richard Harris, but rather supporting player Bo Derek, whose lovely leg is memorably nibbled off by a vengeful killer whale? We don’t recall it, either. (Actually, I do remember a scene that found Charlotte poured into a wetsuit, and thinking that producer Dino De Laurentiis was probably praying that it would do for Orca what Jackie Bisset in a wet T-shirt had done for The Deep a few months earlier.)
It was in the early 2000s that Rampling began serving as a muse of sorts for François Ozon, a melodramatist who first cast the then-54-year-old Rampling in his tragic mystery Under the Sand (2000). The film centers on a middle-aged wife who slowly becomes unhinged after her husband mysteriously vanishes at the beach one afternoon. Ozon’s Swimming Pool (2003), Angel (2007) and Young and Beautiful (2013) followed over the next decade, all of which tapped into the maturity and strength that came from his leading lady’s 30 years of onscreen experience. Rampling has actually credited Ozon with energizing her career and helping her to “re-realize my potential as a cinema actor” following her battle with depression for most of the Nineties, a delayed reaction to her sister’s suicide back in the late 1960s.
Rampling hasn’t missed a step over the past decade, her finest roles continuing to reflect her age and aura. She’s wise and wizened, you might say, particularly in 2016’s 45 Years, for which she earned her sole Academy Award nomination for Best Actress. (Her Golden Globe and Emmy noms were for the 2015 TV movie London Spy and the 2012 miniseries Restless, respectfully.) Writer/director Andrew Haigh’s romantic drama about a British couple whose lives take a precarious turn on the eve of their 45th anniversary when a decades-old secret rears its head was a remarkable showcase for Rampling and co-star Tom Courtenay as it quietly illustrated how the past is never past.
Back in the present, while the upcoming arthouse offerings Benedetta and Everything Is Fine might each find respectable viewerships, it's Dune that will put Rampling in front of the biggest global audience of her career.
Recalling her roles in the post-apocalyptic thriller Babylon A.D (2008), the dystopian romantic fantasy Never Let Me Go (2010) and, of course, Zardoz, Rampling plays the all-seeing "Reverend Mother" Gaius Helen Mohiam. A leader of the Bene Gesserit, an enigmatic sisterhood whose mystical members have conditioned their bodies and minds to obtain superhuman powers, Rampling’s Gaius has the power to create and affect social, religious and political happenings in the Dune universe.
Yeah, it sounds a little perplexing to me, too, as I’m not a Dune acolyte. But it looks like they found the right actress to keep it magical and mysterious.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.