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Charlotte Rampling, queen of cult

British-born French actress Charlotte Rampling. - Credit: Sygma via Getty Images

Richard Luck looks at an actress who has managed to remain very British while also being undeniably European.

Charlotte Rampling, like her contemporaries Jane Birkin and Jacqueline Bisset, has managed to remain very British while also being undeniably European. Perhaps by virtue of having lived in Paris so long, Rampling feels more like a product of her continent than her home country.

This isn’t to say that she belongs to a particular nation or region within Europe. Sure, she might speak French and Italian fluently, but, like Birkin and Bisset, she seems to hail from a foreign land that’s as exotic as it is non-specific; a place where the currencies are charisma, cool and inscrutability.

In fact, she hails from the village of Sturmer, in rural Essex. But throughout her career, Rampling appears to have dedicated her life to the extraordinary. Her acting CV alone reads like a catalogue of classic cult films. The Damned, Vanishing Point, The Night Porter, Zardoz, Farewell, My Lovely, Angel Heart, Under the Sand – all these and Orca: The Killer Whale!

Tessa Charlotte Rampling has also recorded an album, married a French music legend, written an acclaimed memoir, received a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination and been presented with both an OBE and the Legion d’Honneur. Not bad for someone who got their start advertising Cadbury’s chocolate on television.

It’s tempting to say that Rampling’s exoticism was in her genes. The daughter of Godfrey Rampling, an Olympic gold medal-winning sprinter and officer in the British army, and acclaimed painter Isabel Gurteen, for Charlotte, high achievement wasn’t an option but a necessity.

To speed her on the way to great things, she was educated at St Hilda’s Boarding School in Hertfordshire and l’Academie Jeanne D’Arc near Versailles. With her father’s work taking him to Spain, France and Gibraltar, school holidays were invariably spent on the continent perfecting a cabaret act with her older sister, Sarah.

Tragically, a miscarriage would lead Sarah to take her own life in 1966. Devastated by the news, Godfrey kept the truth of Sarah’s passing from their mother, although he later confided in Charlotte. Until her death in 2001, Isabel remained convinced her eldest child had succumbed to a brain haemorrhage.

Keen to escape her grief, Charlotte threw herself into a modelling career. A turn in a Cadbury’s ad, together with a chance encounter with a casting director, resulted in unbilled appearance in two of the hottest films of the early 1960s, The Knack and A Hard Day’s Night. A stint with the Royal Court provided a bridge to more substantial roles, first in the Boulting brothers’ crime comedy Rotten To The Core and then Silvio Narizzano’s Georgy Girl (1966). Though Lynn Redgrave might have had the title role, it was Rampling who sent hearts soaring wherever the movie was shown.

“If you watch one minute of her in Georgy Girl, that could last you a lifetime,” Vincent Gallo told Neon in 1996. And though he’s an actor given to overstatement – in the same interview, he boasted about roughing up a mafia boss’s son to retrieve a $5 debt – in this instance, the Buffalo 66 star was right on the money.

Unfortunately, it took the movie industry a while to figure out what to do with Rampling’s combination of ethereal beauty and undeniable screen presence. All-star Hollywood epic The Long Duel (1967) was a bust. Luchino Visconti’s The Damned, on the other hand, proved an excellent fit.

It starred Helmut Berger and Dirk Bogarde but it was the English actress who stood to gain most from the movie, at least that’s what the director told her compatriot. “She can be a big, big star,” Visconti told Bogarde. “[I cast her because] she has the beautiful eyes of tragedy. [Stardom] is her decision, not mine; mine to have, yes, but hers to take the chance.” But instead of traditional stardom, Charlotte Rampling wound up pursuing something far more interesting – the career of a truly international actress.

Travelling to the States to make Vanishing Point (her scenes for which would be excised from the film’s US cut), holing up in Italy to shoot the notorious ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore, wintering in Switzerland to film The Ski Bum – Rampling’s career path was exciting, eccentric and a real boon on the air miles front.

Then came 1974, the year that secured her place both in cult movie infamy. As the immortal Consuella in John Boorman’s Zardoz, Rampling had the job of restoring sex to an abstinent world, a feat she accomplished rather impressively in the company of a loincloth-sporting Sean Connery.

The film itself was either a science-fiction masterpiece or a grotesque waste of money – critics tended to think the latter, more adventurous sci-fi fans the former.

Zardoz might have been barking but it had nothing on the dark insanity of Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter. Re-teaming Damned co-stars Rampling and Bogarde, it’s the story of a Nazi officer and a Holocaust survivor who encounter one another 12 years on from the end of the war. One might expect a tale of revenge to ensue but instead writer-director Cavani – an acclaimed documentary filmmaker – has her leads renew the sadomasochistic relationship from their time in the camps.

Understandably, a lot of people were very upset about The Night Porter. One person who wasn’t was Alex Cox, the director of Repo Man and Walker, who featured Cavanni’s film as part of the BBC’s 1995 ‘Forbidden’ weekend.

In his defence of the picture, Cox took to task critics like Pauline Kael who had come out strongly against The Night Porter. “Have they no complex motives, no feelings of ambiguity, no knowledge of the perversity and strangeness of human emotions?”

The former Moviedrome host also pointed to the film having its origins in an interview Cavani conducted with a Jewish woman who had experienced a relationship similar to the one between Rampling and Bogarde while interred.

None of which makes The Night Porter easier to take. Author John Fowles was so disturbed by the film, he insisted director Karel Reisz find someone other than Rampling to play the title role in his movie adaptation of Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman. However, as a genuinely adult, undeniably erotic movie, its importance is as undeniable as is the role it played in cementing Rampling’s reputation as an actor capable of harrowing, to-the-edge performances.

In the latter half of the 1970s, it was hard to tell whether Rampling was on a mission to push the envelope still further or if she was picking her scripts while wearing a blindfold. How else could you explain her appearing in Patrice Chereau’s erotic thriller Flesh Of The Orchid and the dire Jaws knock-off Orca? Her showing up in Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict was also unusual, albeit by dint of the film being so traditional and straightforward.

By contrast, Max, Mon Amour felt right up Rampling’s street, it being the story of a married French woman who conducts an affair with a chimpanzee. Directed by Nagisa Oshima of Ai No Corrida infamy, Max ought to have been appalling, and in the eyes of some critics, that’s precisely what it was. That the film enhanced, rather than forever ruined, Ramping’s reputation is a testimony to her bravery and her ability to commit to even the most utterly ridiculous roles.

It’s possible that hard times away from the screen inured Rampling to the critics’ cruellest words. Married to Kiwi actor Bryan Southcombe in the early 1970s, Charlotte met her second husband, French electronic music whizz Jean-Michel Jarre, in 1975. Their union would last two decades and produce a son, David, a brother for Barney, the product of her relationship with Southcombe.

Being married to a pop star wasn’t without its problems, mind you. Such was the extent of her husband’s infidelities that it was no surprise that Rampling called time on their union in 1998. The nervous breakdown that followed was a reaction to an emotionally gruelling period.

With her anger over Jarre’s adultery and her unresolved feelings towards her sister, one wouldn’t have been at all surprised had Rampling withdrawn from public life. As it was, she embarked on a fruitful creative relationship with French filmmaker Francois Ozon. So comfortable was she while working with the then young director, she found a way to memorialise Sarah by playing a character with that name in 2003’s Swimming Pool. As she told the Guardian, “I thought that after such a very long time of not letting her be with me I would like to bring her back into my life.”

And she hasn’t stopped working since. The very best thing about the last season of Dexter and the second series of Broadchurch, Rampling landed an overdue Oscar nomination for 45 Years in 2015. She also managed to keep a straight face through rubbish like Basic Instinct 2 and Babylon AD. Her forthcoming roles include the pivotal part of Gaius Helen Mohiam in Denis Villeneuve’s Dune adaptation.

Still resident in Paris, Rampling remains the pride of a continent rather than a country. When the time came to write her memoir, Who I Am, she did so in French. Likewise, her album, Comme une femme (2002), was recorded in the language of its title. Presented with European Film Awards in 2003 and 2015, an honorary Cesar in 2001 and the Legion d’Honneur in 2002, hers is the success of someone who sees borders as deserving the same treatment as big-screen taboos.

Of course, for some people, Rampling will always exist in black-and-white. In the case of Vincent Gallo, her Georgy
Girl close-ups still pack a considerable punch. Her finest monochrome moment, however, comes in Woody Allen’s
Stardust Memories (1980). Beautiful and unstable in equal measure, Rampling’s nightmarish dream girl Dorrie feels at
a 45-degree angle from the rest of 
Allen’s film, a comedy in which the writer-director plays a filmmaker keen to make serious pictures despite everyone saying they prefer his “early, funnier ones”.

As Alex Cox explained, when the film aired on Moviedrome, “Stardust Memories is 98% funny. The other 2% consists of two minutes of Charlotte Rampling that is serious and amazing”.

If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know exactly what the man is talking about and why the scene is a perfect demonstration of the actress’s on-screen power and charisma. And if you haven’t, well, you know what you need to do next.

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