Possibilities in a Cold Climate
There is a passage in Dirk Bogarde’s autobiography, An Orderly Man, where he mentions Luchino Visconti once saying of Charlotte Rampling, “if she so wished it, she would be a star.” “Bogarde believed Visconti “didn’t make those remarks lightly.” Yet Rampling never really did become hugely famous; and yet perhaps more than any other British actress of very loosely her generation (Julie Christie, Vanessa Redgrave, Susannah York, Jacqueline Bisset, Jenny Agutter etc.) she’s achieved a certain type of longevity more familiar to the French actress than the British star, a career closer to that of Catherine Deneuve, Isabelle Huppert and Nathalie Baye. What is interesting is that, again in keeping with the French stars mentioned, Rampling, who of course often works in French films, has achieved this longevity whilst retaining a confident sexuality. No matter that she’s frequently played characters for whom fragility of mind or perversity of character have driven the film’s narrative, there has often been, and increasingly appears to be, an assured sexuality. This is a point critics and interviewers usually observe. In an interview with Rampling in the Guardian, Helena Smith mentions within the first four, short paragraphs that Rampling is “one of the most erotic actresses in cinema”, has “natural sensuality”, and “seething eroticism”.
This isn’t to say that other British actresses haven’t been extremely sexual presences on screen, either conventionally so or more unconventionally. After all, Christie’s love scene with Donald Sutherland in Don’t Look Now was ground-breakingly intimate, and at fifty she offered an emotionally attuned, sexually subtle performance in Alan Rudolph’s Afterglow. Bisset played sultry characters from her late thirties to mid-forties, in Class, High Season and Wild Orchid. Redgrave, meanwhile, has always had a vaguely androgynous appeal, present in the TV sex-change movie, Second Serve, and The Ballad of the Sad Café, which culminates on an intense fist-fight between Redgrave and Keith Carradine. But as critic David Thomson in A Biographical Dictionary of Film reckoned, of Redgrave’s work into the eighties and afterwards, “she was evidently far enough into her forties to be beyond romantic lead parts.” The same could hardly be said of Rampling, an actress now into her sixties, and still capable of playing romantic or sexually active lead roles in films of the last few years, as in Heading South, Signs and Wonders and Under the Sand.
There are maybe two lines of thought possible here. One concerns Rampling’s appearance; and though the face has aged, it’s never really changed. In the publicity shot from the 1999 Guardian interview quoted above, she’s lit with the harshest of light. Half her face is caught by the incoming sunlight and this gives her face an etched, worried countenance, the antithesis of Roland Barthes’ analysis of an Harcourt actor face in The Eiffel Tower and other Mythologies, the publicity shot visage, where, in a certain type of photograph, the actor “never does anything: he is caught in repose…a face purged of all movement.” Rampling’s publicity photo, though, shows an animated face, but animated in a specific way: as in many of her films, Rampling’s visage is rarely energized by pleasure, but much more by fret, loss, despair – the demanding emotions. Rampling links this shift from vivaciousness to seriousness to a moment in her own life during the Swinging Sixties, when her sister died of a brain haemorrhage. “…Things suddenly weren’t swinging anymore,” she said in a revealing interview in The Independent with Gaby Wood. “I found I couldn’t be frivolous…” and insisted that after this she wanted to “understand what the hell was going on, and took parts…that delved into the human psyche.”
There is a sense when we look at Rampling’s face that it is devoid of triviality. If she could be considered the most serious actress of her generation, then this isn’t the usual quality of work comment, it lies more in a certain quality of being. Her face seems to capture not just pain, but the concern for pain, perhaps our final inability to comprehend the pain of others: “Nobody really gives a stuff what you’re feeling really – nobody, probably nobody in the whole world,” she said in The Independent. “That’s what I’ve felt when I’ve felt really upset.” When we look at Rampling’s face and the characters she plays, it is as though we’re looking at this problematic at work: the grief of as much not caring as caring, and that one worries not always out of concern for another, but sometimes perhaps out of a concern for one’s own lack of concern for others. If the face has aged and brilliantly captures the thematic of concern for one’s ambivalent concern for others (a much deeper problematic of course than a visage that captures concern or its absence), the body remains lean and athletic. It is courtesy of nature and nurture: her father was a gold medal winning athlete in the 1936 Olympics, and she has no problem convincing us of her gym regime in Under the Sand. In Signs and Wonders she has a topless scene opposite Stellan Skarsgaard, and her body suggests a woman fifteen years younger. Rampling may have decided to allow the pressure of a serious life to manifest itself on the face, but she still moves through the film frame quite nimbly.
The other line of thought concerns the narrative socio-logic in which her work fits: the French tradition of female sexuality at an age when many British and American actresses have settled into motherly and even grand-motherly roles. Critics may often say that French film endlessly recycles the guiding older man, young ingénue romance narrative, but though this is frequently the case, there are also, and especially more recently, plenty roles where older women have offered a very sexual, passionate persona as they embark on affairs with younger men. Be that Huppert in The School of Flesh and The Piano Teacher, Deneuve in Le vent de la nuit or Baye in Les liaisons pornographique and Venus Beauty. Rampling’s physical presence very much suits this type of cinema. So though Rampling ‘has a faraway gaze, even when she is looking straight at you”, according to Gaby Wood, she seems nevertheless sexually and even emotionally very present. It is just that the emotional presence, as we’ve suggested above, isn’t that of caring or not caring, but as if caught between the two states.
We might think of a mid-seventies film she made with Peter O’Toole and Max von Sydow, Arturo Ripstein’s The Other Side of Paradise, where in one scene she says, beseechingly of the animals being killed by hunters, ”they’re killing everything, they’re turning the island into a slaughterhouse.” But, later on, after she accuses her husband’s friend of raping her, she insists that O’Toole kills von Sydow’s character. This isn’t a categorically pacifist position she holds; just the revelation of an emotional sensibility that can comprehend the cruel as readily as the sensitive and vulnerable. It is also present in Patrice Chereau’s The Flesh of the Orchid, made a couple of years earlier, where Rampling clings to Bruno Cremer’s bulky hero and insists how much she needs and loves him. But by the end of the film, with Cremer dead, we feel Rampling quickly adjusts to calculation when, after various thriller permutations, she re-inherits the family fortune and starts making deals over the phone from her hospital bed as two corpses lie nearby.
What we often find in a French narrative form is this idea of a woman caring/not caring: showing intense sensitivity on the one hand; suggesting its complete absence on the other. There is the scene in Le vent de la nuit, for example, where the hypersensitive Deneuve nevertheless decides to take her young lover to meet her husband, or Huppert, desperately in love with the young jock-cum pianist, completely controlling his sexual pleasure in a public toilet in The Piano Teacher. Rampling has more than a little of this sensitive insensitivity.
Thus, it isn’t just the sexuality of Rampling’s characters; it’s also their complexity, bloody-mindedness and perversity, all aspects that seem more pertinent to the French narrative form over the British moral approach to character and story, as if she were somehow escaping her own perfect, all too perfect British upper class etat civil. For as Ephraim Katz’s Film Encyclopedia illustrates, Rampling’s superficial upbringing and life, skeletally presented, passes for socially impeccable. “The daughter of a British colonel who became a NATO commander, she was educated at Jeanne d’Arc Academie pour Jeunes Filles in Versailles and at the exclusive St Hilda’s school in Bushey, England…in 1983 she married Jean-Michel Jarre, millionaire composer of synthesizer music.”
It is as though Rampling isn’t quite, however, simply the cold and calculated figure of cinema many might initially assume, but that there is much more a contrariness at work: the human, all too human acceptance of the pragmatic, in some ways, and the possibility, yet final impossibility, of really being at one with the world in a meaningful communion. There always seems to be some hovering absence, some ethical complication or some perverse desire that removes the coordinates of the normal and the sort of wonderfully civil life her Katz potted bio would suggest. Even in Paris by Night, in the film where she plays a Tory politician who most obviously wants the perfect external life, she completely misreads the signs as she becomes increasingly anxious about her career. As she kills an innocent man whom she believes is trying to blackmail her, and whom she thinks has followed her from London to Paris, she destroys her future at the very moment she believes she is protecting it. When the instincts go so awry, or when, as in Under the Sand, the perceptual faculties become so askew, as she believes her missing husband is actually still very much in her life and in her field of vision, what is often left as ‘real’ is sex. In this sense, the sexual manifests itself as a kind of pure action, as an active escape from the moral and ‘real’ coordinates of one’s life for a communion of physical being that seems much more consistent with French narrative structures than British scripting. (The latter, still so often tied to the sort of moral coordinates that are Elizabethan or pre-Victorian if we take into account all the Shakespeare and Austen adaptations or re-workings of the last decade.)
Thus, for example, in Paris by Night, Rampling’s character’s life is a complete shambles, no matter her ostensible rising star as attractive, conservative Euro MP, Clara Paige. Whilst in Paris she adds to the chaos by embarking on an affair with a young British business-man abroad. At one stage, after they’ve made love, he says to her that what Clara says is very harsh (she’s talking Thatcherite values of self-responsibility and accepting the consequences of one’s actions), but that he sees another side. However ‘this side’ basically seems the mutual tenderness that making love has brought out. It’s the love-making that manages to get below the selfish ethos of her everyday life, an everyday existence that has left Clara’s son in London recovering from appendicitis without her presence, and of course where she’s murdered an entirely innocent man whom she thought was trying to ruin her career. What Rampling is very good at, and why she seems more a French or loosely European actress than a British one, is this hazy morality attached to a physically needy presence. As she says in The Other Side of Paradise, “please, don’t make me jealous” after she feels her husband has been flirting and getting close to an ex.
Now these contradictory elements are well expressed in the dichotomous Rampling face and body. Critics are reluctant to talk about an unequivocal beauty – the way one might mention Bisset’s radiance or Christie’s warmth: as if there is some inherent moral value within the physical. Rampling’s more inclined to receive statements like David Quinlan’s comment in The Illustrated Dictionary of Film Stars: where he makes an observation about ‘her rather harsh features’, even if he believes after the mid-seventies they lent themselves to a more sympathetic image. Perhaps though the characters just became more complex, more capable of registering the dual problematic we’ve proposed. When we look at Rampling’s eyes, they’re well capable of registering utter contempt and coldness, but also a pain that draws one in and forces upon us questions: what unfathomable hurt, for example, can be located behind them? Such a complexity can give texture to a role that by conventional standards is woefully underwritten; evident for example in her femme fatale figure in The Verdict, where she tries to trick Paul Newman’s lawyer. Much of the plausibility comes from Rampling playing perverse, than back story justification. Now if the director lights Rampling evenly, almost in the Harcourt style as Barthes describes it, we will be left with the harshness but not the problematic. What is especially interesting is when a filmmaker starts looking at the problematic behind those eyes. In Under the Sand, the director Francois Ozon explicitly stated he wanted to work from Rampling’s face. When he showed people the first twenty minutes he’d shot, they said “Oh it’s so sad, and the cast is so boring, Charlotte Rampling and Bruno Cremer are so old-fashioned, nobody wants to see old people like this, we don’t care for these characters.” They believed, when he showed them the rest of the script, “nothing happens.” “Trust me,” Ozon insisted in an interview in Projections 12.: “you’ll see something will happen in Charlotte Rampling’s face.”
But, of course, it not only happens in Rampling’s countenance; it’s an issue of the body as well. In Ozon’s study of a woman grieving over her husband’s disappearance, we witness someone coming to terms not just with a missing husband, but a missing mass. In the film’s first couple of sequences, Bruno Cremer is very much present, a large, cuddly man who looks like he could comfort almost anybody from the storms of life. After he disappears, Rampling’s character Marie is like a character suddenly in need of shelter. We watch as she shores herself up with images of the bulky Cremer from her imagination, and attempts to take another lover. Yet in one scene with her new man she can’t help but laugh: as he makes love to her he’s so much lighter than her husband. Throughout, Ozon plays up Marie’s physical lightness as well as her mental fragility. There’s a reference to Marie’s gym routine, as well as the moment in the lecture theatre where she reads to her students from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, becoming perturbed by a particular passage about no longer being young, and has to stop the lecture. It is as if Marie’s neediness in Under the Sand resides in demanding a tree that will shelter her from the ferocity of too much light, and for many years Cremer has been that tree. His sheer bulk is protective. They almost seem in the first couple of scenes like a curious comedic double act: taking into account that comedy so often lies in differences of proportion. There is Rampling as slim as a woman can be in her mid-fifties; and her husband corpulent as Marie chides him and suggests smaller portions. She seems in control of the relationship not emotionally – as we’ve indicated, she’s often plays a needy presence – but physically: she’s been much more successful at a kind of will of proportion.
What we mean by the will of proportion is the degree to which someone retains one’s figure, one’s shape and refuses to allow life – its pleasures and its pains – to shape shift one into lethargy and fat. But, then there is still the mind; that no matter the able physique, the mind might collapse around that body. Now Rampling talks very openly about her own breakdown in 1991, as openly as she talks about her sister’s loss over twenty years earlier, saying, “I thought life was not comfortable, and you are always on edge and you were always having difficulties with most things.” In Under the Sand, Ozon wants almost to remove the difficulties, the angst of breaking down, for a perceptual insecurity that can nevertheless leave the person more or less physically intact. Thus though Marie’s husband disappears, she conjures him up out of her imagination, and consequently still proves able to go about her life: including, despite a few problems, teaching, lecturing, and working out at the gym.
This is a curious form of mental denial that protects the body; no matter the potential weakness of the mind. Nietzsche may have proposed in a passage from The Gay Science that consciousness is the last and latest development of the organic, and also that from ‘consciousness there proceeds countless errors which cause an animal, a man to perish earlier than necessary’. But in Rampling’s role here there is a consciousness that gains sustenance from its refusal or inability to evolve. There seems to be so much potential damage in admittance, that denial proves one’s only strength. If we think again of Rampling’s face, of the pain it appears to have inflicted on itself when her characters give themselves over to thought, who can deny someone their right to denial? Clearly we’re under the impression that Rampling’s character here has allowed her notion of real-life to be contained by her husband, but why, Ozon almost seems to be asking, should she have to face life so brutally now? In this sense, Under the Sand is the optimistic side of limited consciousness; just as Paris by Night is its pessimistic presence. If Clara in David Hare’s film comes unstuck by her failure to perceive reality with any precision, then Marie in Under the Sand appears to survive through this failure of consciousness.
But we shouldn’t pretend that though limited consciousness covers both films, the problematic each explores is the same. For Hare, Clara’s problem is that she wants to dictate the terms of reality as a politician, a social decision maker, and thus any failure of perception has huge implications, microcosmically (and maybe too melodramatically) explored through the murder, her son’s ill health, her husband’s forbearance, and the consequences of each. But in Under the Sand there are next to no consequences; Marie doesn’t even have children who have to buy into her fantasy. Though there is the suggestion (from Cremer’s mother), that Rampling has always been a selfish woman – the sort of attacks that could just as readily be levelled at Clara – we can say she has been solipsistically selfish – she’s been self-absorbed. This is evident in the aforementioned scene where she reads from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves, as she seems as readily to be talking to herself as to any student audience. But that is not so in Paris by Night, where Clara’s sociopolitically selfish, as she determinedly will not so much deny reality as cover aspects of it up to further her own ambitions. The man she ends up murdering is someone who bought over the ailing company Clara and her husband owned. They knew it was going under as they sold it to him, and the man, at the end of his tether, is just looking for a bit of recompense to help him through hard times.
Thus we can see two forms of denial taking place, but with very different external implications. This can even impact on the body. If there is a sense of Rampling in Under the Sand looking after herself; in Paris by Night this seems clearly not to be the case. As she loses sleep two evenings in a row in Paris, and gives the impression that she follows Thatcher’s dictum of sleeping about four hours a night, there is an inexorable sense of imminent collapse and exhaustion that the film could have more fruitfully explored had Hare eschewed the melodramatic ending – where her husband shoots her dead. There is a burning the candle at both ends aspect to Clara that is completely absent from Marie in Under the Sand.
Hence we have to ask what is selfishness, if it can move in two completely different directions? Just as we’ve shown that Rampling isn’t simply cruel, but can also be surprisingly humanist, even pantheist, so we can see that her selfishness takes different forms also. And yet we still have a notion of Rampling that seems coherent, even if within this persona there are plenty of facets. How can we affirm this contrary? What we need to ask is not what makes Rampling consistent, however, but makes Rampling ‘Rampling’. If she seems equally at home playing socially ambitious and solipsistically self-contained, where does the consistency reside? Again, we return to the face and the body, for Rampling more than any other actress of her generation has simply aged. Of course everybody ages, but that isn’t the only thing the human body does: it also transforms. While many actresses become ‘dumpy’, ‘bloated’, unrecognizably grey or grannyish in their body, voice and gesture, Rampling seems to have made the body and face the site for her sanity. Like Lauren Bacall, who also shared a certain lithe, feline quality that she took into longevity, Rampling gives off the air of a woman stoical in the face of adversity, and it’s a stoicism that insists the face and body can absorb life without being transformed by it. It is as if Rampling had insisted that all the pain shall be channelled through those perplexingly sad, beautiful, sometimes cold, sometimes assured, sometimes haughty eyes, and that every other shock will not so much pass her by, but be carefully contained. It is a sort of self-ness.
In The Independent interview, Wood wonders whether or not to take the cool Rampling demeanour at face value. But we could add it should be taken at face and body value, and that central to Rampling’s unfathomability resides in the subtlety of her despair: this very cinematically European form of collapse that must be searched for rather than given. American cinema – even very fine American cinema – often wants to give to any hint of mental disturbance an assertive metonymy: anything from James Stewart’s six foot plus rabbit in Harvey, Brando’s shaved head in Apocalypse Now, De Niro’s Mohican in Taxi Driver. But in Rampling’s work we can often see an allusive metonymy – one which asks us to interpret signs rather than unequivocally read them. After all, Rampling may have cropped hair for her scenes in the concentration camp in The Night Porter, but that is not where her ‘madness’ lies. That comes later, when she meets again her tormentor in a hotel and the power has shifted: Bogarde is the titular porter; Rampling the wealthy wife of a music conductor with her hair beautifully cut and her dress sense exquisite. In this sense maybe films like Under the Sand, and also Max, Mon Amour, where Rampling falls in love with the eponymous monkey, nevertheless still suggest the overly categorical. After all, in Ozon’s film we undeniably see her husband in Rampling’s mind’s eye after he disappears from her life. In Nagisa Oshima’s film we have the presence of the monkey to make us wonder about Rampling’s mental well-being.
But if, in the American examples we give, it is as though the ‘mad’ details exemplify and exaggerate the illness, in Under the Sand and Max Mon Amour, the apparent metonymic assertiveness proves to be the opposite. Marie seems to retain her well-being through conjuring up her husband from her imagination, and the affair with the monkey would appear to offer Rampling a confidence she might not have had before it: her husband’s been philandering, and Rampling’s character Margaret gets her own back in style. What we’re suggesting, then, is that in each instance the viewer is left not thinking of the assertive metonymy, but that we’re once again returned to the body language. We watch in each instance a woman who ostensibly should be collapsing under the weight of the madness she’s ushering into her life, but who in fact seems ever more assured. When Margaret’s diplomat husband talks to her in a restaurant immediately after she’s disclosed the affair with Max, he says “But it’s unthinkable. Margaret, what has happened to you, have you gone completely insane?” Yes, we might say, if we look at the apparently assertive metonymy of the monkey; no if we look at Margaret’s approach to this new element in her existence. She views her new life with practical confidence. When she moves Max into her and her husband’s luxury Parisian apartment, she insists on time alone with her lover, offering the body language of any woman who feels empowered by a new love. Even after her husband’s suggestion that she has gone mad, Margaret responds with irritation rather than contrite embarrassment. As she licks her thumb and forefinger of any remaining flavour after their meal, she says “I’m tired, Peter. Let’s go to bed.” Peter, understandably flabbergasted, wonders how he can be expected to go to bed with a wife who is having an affair with a monkey. What Rampling does here, and to some degree in Under the Sand also, is offer the normalcy of a body language at odds with the situation. Where De Niro and Brando – and this is by no means a criticism; merely a differentiation – psychologically and behaviourally align themselves to the metonymy; Rampling works against it. She retains this air of unfathomable madness by acting sanely within an undeniably ‘abnormal’ scenario.
Thus we can say of Rampling that it is not only that she acts in such a way which demands a hermeneutic to understand her chaos, but that often part of this need for interpretation resides in a high degree of sane behaviour working against a vaguely surreal scenario. Even if sometimes it is the reverse, the ambiguity principle remains. We see this for example in Lemming, where a scene of conventional bourgeois domesticity gets countered by Rampling’s increasingly eccentric behaviour after she and her husband have been invited round to dinner by her husband’s work colleague and his wife. As Rampling refuses to take off her dark glasses, and eventually throws a glass of wine all over her husband, we are again interpreting what it is that leads her to act as she does. If in Max, Mon Amour and Under the Sand it resides in her normalized reaction to abnormal situations, in Lemming it is the opposite, and yet the point holds: what is central to Rampling’s persona is a certain and final un-readability. Now this doesn’t make her unique – and her complexity in this area may seems relatively un-evolved next to the searching, hugely challenging thespian explorations of Huppert – but if a film follows the attitudes, tones, speech patterns and behavioural modes of Rampling, then its foundations somehow collapse. She makes the filmic world in which she is in very fragile. And yet the same could also be said of an actress we earlier invoked: Julie Christie. But Christie so often represents the benignly unreadable, so that in films like Billy Liar, Don’t Look Now, Heat and Dust and Away From Her, there may well be some other-worldly aspect, but within Christie the soul seems finally untroubled. It’s as if that cooingly soft voice and warm, fulsome yet slightly abashed smile, implies a cosmos that allows her to play warm in a warm world, no matter the occasional attempts at feistiness in McCabe and Mrs Miller, or bitchiness, as in Shampoo. Imagine how much darker Rampling would have been in the roles? Rampling, with that much harsher, clipped tone, no matter the voice’s smooth pitch, possesses a smile that rarely breaks out into a grin, and she seems to lend herself well to a certain wicked-witch impenetrability.
She is, in common parlance, generally unsympathetic. However, that seems less simply a characterisational position in the filmic world, in a filmic world of good characters and bad characters and that she plays the bad, but almost as a condition of the film. She frequently plays not so much unsympathetic characters, as in unsympathetic films: in films that don’t lend themselves to narrative resolution, behavioural specificity and clear goals. This is what finally makes Rampling an interesting actress – the degree to which she had to escape into amoral filmic worlds to find complex characters. If she had hung around in British cinema she would probably have got caught playing Manichean baddies to others’ goodies. But it is as if that early crisis she talks of so openly, that moment in her life when she could no longer believe in the world optimistically, led her to search out also a very different filmic universe. It led her to take parts in films like The Night Porter and The Other Side of Paradise; it led her to make Italian films of British plays, like ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, and to surprising works like the briefly aforementioned and too little known Signs and Wonders.
Now what is interesting about Jonathan Nossiter’s film is that Rampling has rarely played more sympathetic – this is a role Christie ostensibly could have taken – yet there is something unsympathetic in the filmic world. This suggests Rampling isn’t just a great actress of the unsympathetic, but also gives to the film as a whole an unsettled, askew perspective that is bigger than her characterization. If we can say Christie so often gives her films a hint of a benign cosmos, Rampling gives to hers a malignant air of threat and despair. Thus at the end of the film her ex-husband is in prison after being accused of blowing up her new partner’s flat, and the new partner dead after Rampling’s daughter ambivalently contributes to him falling off a mountain. Though there is apparently no ‘evil’ within Rampling’s character, it is as though just as Gerald Mast could say of comedy that there is such a thing as a ‘comic climate’, a world that contains numerous elements by virtue of the generic expectation, we can talk more specifically not only about genres but about actors as well – in this instance of a Rampling climate. That is, a chilly, ambivalent filmic universe that will contain darkness even if Rampling’s character is not playing especially evil or vindictive.
We might think here also of the conclusion to Max, Mon Amour, where the film appears to be settling into its happy ending, and where Max rejoins the family after going missing. Everybody seems cheery on Max’s return, including the maid, who thought she was allergic to Max but finds out that she isn’t, and the husband who was jealous of Max but now realizes that a happy marital state requires Max’s presence. But then in the final scene in the film Margaret explains to her husband how she imagined that the police had come to the door after neighbours have been complaining about the noise, and insisted that she could no longer look after Max. She pleaded with them but they were insistent, so she simply decided to kill Max herself. After this the film ends, and on an ambivalent note, as though Rampling’s imaginings are stronger than any optimistic narrative the film has moved towards.
Hence, what we’ve been exploring here is Rampling’s climate – one that demanded a continental context rather than a British one, and a climate that would explore tentatively her behaviour and demeanour and visage through a subtle and slow aging process that seems to give so little away but leaves us with much to explore. There are some actresses that appear to demand constant collisions with matter which gives them an air of lived-in commitment: that they’ve been devoted to life. But Rampling gives much more the impression of an actress committed to a belief in pessimism whilst living carefully, protectively – a point Gaby Wood makes. “She is moving on – perhaps (or perhaps not) protecting herself from the past as she goes.” For Rampling is not an actress who generally watches her old films: “I’ve never wanted to be diverted by the image that I give off. I don’t want to get caught in a narcissistic trap.” She also says however that she believes in recent films she’s been more open in her presentation of character: Marie in Under the Sand “is much more open and gentle”, and yet as we’ve explored, still possesses a strong element of self-protection. Rampling then is an interesting conundrum in that she has aged better than almost any actress of her generation, and yet that ‘physical optimism’ hasn’t manifested itself in the films; where so often her filmic climate has remained frosty and removed. It is as if there has always been too dark a metaphysic surrounding the work, an atmosphere of despair that counters a possible hope in how a human being absorbs life.
Maybe it is the balancing act between a very healthy exterior life consistent with the etat civil Katz offers in his potted biography, and the internal chaos that proposes art as the ongoing hypothesis of the tragedies occasionally befalling us. Rampling’s work is curious in that this tragedy seems to reside chiefly in the specifics of the face, and more abstractly in the filmic world she occupies with a quiet despair. This is a despair that was never likely to make her the star Visconti and others predicted. It has instead however given us something more interesting; a figure creating a complicit unease in the viewer, perhaps never better captured than in a few moments from a film that we haven’t mentioned, but on which we’ll conclude. In Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories, there is a scene where central character Sandy’s life flashes before him, and what he rescues from his existence is a few images of his ex-girlfriend, the confused and complicated character played by Rampling. As she looks at Sandy, she is also looking into the camera, and she fascinatingly offers not only the beauty of many an actress, but a beauty contained by the awareness that often such attractiveness has a price. Has this so often been the taunt Rampling’s characters on some level offer? Much earlier in the film when Sandy first introduces himself to her Rampling says she is fascinating but dangerous. It is a half-joke but deeply meant. It might be the motto for the work as a whole, hardly countered by Rampling’s observation, in The Independent, “it was very much me, that part.”