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The Queen of Europe: The pain and glory of Charlotte Rampling

It isn’t easy getting Charlotte Rampling to let anyone in, be they real people or imagined characters on a script page

Image: The New European

When you think of the great European actresses, the mind tends to drift to the great sirens of Italy such as Sophie Loren or Claudia Cardinale, or the femmes of French cinema, such as Catherine Deneuve, Juliette Binoche and the younger generation of Marion Cotillard and Lea Séydoux. There are outliers including Noomi Rapace, Alicia Vikander and Nina Hoss, perhaps, and there will always be Penélope Cruz. But, really, queen among even all these, must be Charlotte Rampling.

In a career spanning nearly 60 years and 135 films, Rampling must be one of the only English actors to have worked with quite so many great directors of European and world cinema: Luchino Visconti, Laila Cavani, John Boorman, Sidney Lumet, Woody Allen, Nagisa Oshima and Jean-Claude Carrière, François Ozon, Denis Villeneuve, Bille August, Lars von Trier, Paul Verhoeven, Richard Lester…

It’s an extraordinary list and one that she seems to have forged quite uniquely, almost for herself. It’s quite an achievement for any actor but, when you think about it, absolutely incredible for a Brit.

“Well yes, because I am European,” she says quite matter-of-factly. “It’s what I always wanted to be, from a very young age. It was something in me, in my gut, that said I wanted to mix with different cultures and languages. There was no role model, no path for it but I was insistent about it and instinctive about it.”

We’re talking in a pub in Notting Hill before heading to The Gate cinema for a Q&A session following a screening of her latest film, Juniper, which sees her in magnificent form (as usual), in a movie by a first-time New Zealand
filmmaker, Matthew J Saville. Given that she has just stepped off the set of
filming the blockbuster sequel Dune II in Budapest, it’s clear her cinematic
explorations are continuing.

“Brits have never been comfortable with Europe, never, “ she shakes her
head slowly. “And I don’t think they’ve been entirely comfortable with me.
But it’s where I found myself at ease even though I am, according to my
recent findings, 96% English. And everyone kept telling me: ‘Oh, London
is the best place for actors, the theatre, the schools’ – I didn’t want to do any of that. It was like a vision that opened up to me, that I would be in Italian and French cinema. And back then, you just went with it.”

Back then, of course, was the Swinging Sixties, an era she embodied with appearances in A Hard Day’s Night and The Knack… and How to Get It before breaking through in one of the defining films of the time, Georgy Girl, in 1966.

“Oh, I loved it,” she says. “I really got off on it, that whole 60s thing of freedom. It was very real, but only in pockets, let’s not be silly and imagine
the whole nation was swinging, it was just in pockets, particularly in new realms like fashion, photography and film and I was just going along with it,
hoping to pick up bits and pieces and that’s exactly what happened to me, cast from off the street and then I was on my way. But can you imagine, my
character in Georgy Girl, she was egotistical, awful, outrageous and cruel and she wanted everything her own way and I threw myself into it and I loved it and I thought ‘Ooh, I could be just like that, if I wanted’.”

When a script for an Italian film arrived soon after, against the wishes of her agent, Charlotte, aged just 22, took the part and went off to make Sequestro di Persona (Sardinia Kidnapped) and a year later was starring in Visconti’s The Damned. “I seized my moment, that’s all I can say,” she remembers. “I was scared, I was overwhelmed, I was in awe of Visconti and the beauty of his films and yet there I was. It was what I wanted, it was happening, and well, I just got on with it and that’s been my method ever since.”

No-nonsense is what you might say about Charlotte Rampling. Is she really scary though? I must say, we had a few laughs: “I’ll have you know,” she says, ”Woody Allen, when he cast me in Stardust Memories, said that I have a natural gift for comedy.” My eyebrows raise uncontrollably and, after a pause, even her straight face crinkles and we both start giggling. Despite Woody’s endorsement, comedy is not something she’s plugged into much in her career.

With typical Rampling speed, she is deadly again in an instant. “Something
happened in my life, a great tragedy, which meant I became very serious,” she says, referring to the death, in 1967, of her sister, Sarah, with whom she was very close and with whom she’d begun performing as teenagers,
doing cabaret acts of French chansons.

“I couldn’t enjoy anything much after that,” she says. “The 60s were very carefree, but when a tragedy happens and your family falls apart, I thought I can’t just do this for fun and it became, for me, a very serious business. I internalised a lot of the pain, didn’t talk about it, but used it in my acting. It made me a better, deeper actress very quickly and I was drawn to darker parts for a very long time.”

She says she is through it now and can feel a lightness as she gets older, although you wouldn’t know if from her part in Juniper, in which she plays
Ruth, a veteran, alcoholic former war reporter (based on Martha Gellhorn)
who journeys to New Zealand to be cared for by her estranged son and grandson. Ruth is an imperious Rampling creation, who snaps at a doctor for suggesting she needs a catheter and who rages at the indignities of age and injury, while downing a bottle of gin a day. “There’s quite a lot of me in this character,” she admits. “I recognised her spirit and how people perceive her. They’re always frightened of me, always treading softly around me and I don’t really go there with my anger but they think I will, so they stop before I get really angry…”

It’s a warning to an interviewer that some paths of questioning are not to be taken. Despite the film’s preponderance of alcohol, she doesn’t want to talk about drinking or addiction. “I don’t like where this is going,” she says. And something in those narrowed eyes, that look, the lean of the head, the tightness of the lips, all that tells me, let’s not go there, then.

“I don’t have to obey convention, you see,” she says. “I can do what I like,
that’s my generation’s great advantage. If one is well and fit and healthy, we
can do whatever we fancy and nobody can tell us otherwise. The young people I work with, they can’t believe it.”

Given that she’s just been with current icons Timothée Chalamet, Zendaya and Florence Pugh on Dune 2, for example, this is quite a statement. “They don’t have the choice to take on life like I did. They can’t have a career like I did because we are living in an age where nothing is allowed – we’re not allowed to say this, or that, everything we’d like to say is transmitted on a hundred channels or platforms all around the world and scrutinised, you can’t say a thing…”

It’s then I remember how Rampling was “cancelled” over an interview on
French radio during the #oscarssowhite hashtag era of 2016, when she was up for her first and only Oscar nomination, for her performance in 45 Years. Her comments basically blew her chances before she’d even been measured for her red-carpet dress.

“I don’t give out advice,” she snaps. “Not on careers or things like that. I was in a much freer time and I had a good stab at it and went on the ride that was offered to me. I can’t see that it’s there for younger people now. You just have to accept what is in front of you, that’s all I tell them, and that’s all I did.”

What’s clear is that at 75, she is as busy, if not busier than ever. Although
it’s commonly assumed that director François Ozon revived her film career
for the new century with Under the Sand followed by Swimming Pool, she
had always worked. “I had children and a husband I loved and I wanted to
be with them,” she says. “I didn’t just want to make movies, you know.” Will
she carry on?

“If cinema remains interesting, then yes,” she shrugs. “Interesting cinema
isn’t about the shots or the budget for me – it can be a very minimalist thing,
that’s finding a character that moves me and that makes sense to me. That
is good enough for me. But we do need a new movement, some new energy,
films that provoke discussion. But, everyone’s scared to say something these days.”

We talk about The Night Porter, a film that really said something and had 1970s audiences gasping in horror at the taboo subject of sex and Nazis. We talk about Jean-Luc Godard (“a strange little man who was very nice to me”) and all the characters she’s brought to the screen, and the mortality that she deals with in this new film, as the dying Ruth in Juniper (“It was nice to have a trial run,” she says, laughing).

“If I decide I want to make cinema until the end, it won’t just be me,” she
says. “I never shake off a film, we don’t have an eject button. All those people
you’ve seen on the screen they’re all me, all true. I keep them all inside, all part of me. They’ve made me who I am. They’re the ones I’ve let in.”

It isn’t easy, getting Charlotte Rampling to let anyone in, be they real people or imagined characters on a script page. But after spending a lively, stimulating, vibrant, careful night with her, and watching her command the screen and then the live audience, you suspect there’s room for a few more, if they pass muster.

Juniper is on UK release from September 23

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