Charlotte Rampling is the only star who currently belongs to both the world of cinema and the world of of chic. In a famous photograph by Helmut Newton, she sits naked on a table in Arles, glowering. The picture is provocative, and it doesn’t mean anything; if it did, it would be horrible, disturbing, raw. It’s protected from meaning by the thinness, remove, and mystery which make up chic. For chic turns meaning into agreeable form.
Chic is armor, which imprisons as much as it protects. Each of the notable chic actresses embodied a mood which stuck, her signature and emblem: Marlene Dietrich singing “Lili Marlene” in a trench coat; Lauren Bacall saying, “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow”; Audrey Hepburn as Holly Golightly, all sunglasses and bony shoulders. Charlotte Rampling came into her image at a time when sexual and political excesses were common currency, and it was her role in Liliana Cavani’s ill-conceived and heavy-handed The Night Porter that defined her as a sort of S&M pinup of tantalizingly dubious moral value. The poster for the film showed her bare-chested, wearing suspenders and a Nazi cap as the concentration-camp victim who enslaves her captor through sex.
From her first prominent role, as the cello-playing bitch in Georgy Girl, to her part as the doomed German aristocrat in The Damned, Charlotte Rampling had been etching out an image of herself that was skinny, confident, cruel, perverse, decadent, androgynous, fatal. She has been in twenty-one films since The Night Porter, but what the French refer to as “a sulfurous odor” still clings to her, and it is for this that she is often cast to suggest the darker side of life. Her name is so linked to an aura of perversity and vice that when Anne Rice wrote a pseudonymous sadomasochistic novel, she took Rampling as her last name. Charlotte Rampling has stood for sphinx and nemesis and siren and general bad girl.
She has three films about to come out. In Max Mon Amour she is a diplomat’s wife who conducts a torrid affair with a chimpanzee. In Mascara she calmly looks on while her brother, a psychopathic police chief in love with a hermaphrodite, goes over the edge. In D.O.A., which will be released this month, she plays “the suspicious Mrs. Fitzwaring.” In Paris by Night, written and directed by David Hare, which she recently finished filming, she is an ambitious and dangerous Tory politician. Charlotte Rampling is no horror-movie queen, but she is, on film, the unalloyed flavor of the strange.
In person the strangeness is redeemed by a rather jolly, very British matter-of-factness. When I first knew her— slightly—during a period when we both lived in Hollywood, I was struck by her confidence. Even groping for a carrot stick at a producer’s brunch by the sea, she seemed to know exactly which carrot stick to pick. She was then married to Bryan Southcombe, who was also her manager, and had a small baby named Barnaby. About a month after the last of the beach brunches, I ran into her on the stairs of the Carlton Hotel at the Cannes Film Festival. She was with a ravishing dark young man. “This is Jean-Michel,” she said. “Come up and have a drink in our room.” All the conventional reactions crowded in on me: Where was Bryan, and what did she mean, our room? Scandal! What would people think? I had the impression that this was the coolest, most unafraid woman in the world.
She has been married now to Jean-Michel Jarre for ten years. He is the son of movie-music composer Maurice Jarre (Lawrence of Arabia). His albums of synthesizer music—Oxygene, Equinoxe—were huge hits in the late seventies, and the latest form his work has taken is gigantic music-and-light spectacles that encompass entire cities, which he conducts , like an agitated elf, on a glowing podium surrounded by electronic keyboards. They live in a large house outside of Paris, with a stone wall, a cold iron gate, and German shepherds which, if pressed, one senses, would attack. A satellite dish captures worldwide television for them, and their living room is full of toys, synthesizer keyboards, and furniture that is the equivalent of secondhand Hawaiian shirts: kidney-shaped tables and sofas from Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood, patterned with quantum splatters. On the amoeba-shaped coffee table are programs for Jean-Michel’s citywide happenings: the one that took over Houston in 1986, the one that covered Lyons during the pope’s visit the same year. There is also a toy chimp in a child-size sports car. “Max,” says Charlotte Rampling.
Dressed in a loose Japanese shirt several sizes too big and iridescent footless tights, with shining hair and no makeup, she looks not quite thirty, as opposed to forty-one, which is her age. David, her ten-year-old son with Jean-Michel, wanders through, asks to use the typewriter, and goes into the large study at the back, where he can be heard typing for the rest of the afternoon. Barnaby and Emilie, Jean-Michel’s daughter from his first marriage, are at school. Gardeners and young women who work in the house come in to ask questions. There is a strong sense of order.
“An actor goes through life seeking changes and the big challenges. You seek to destabilize yourself, which is the reverse of what most people do in their lives; the normal thing is to create stability, to try to have some rhythm. I do the opposite, so that I’m in a state of absolute vulnerability. When you’re working, you’re on a permanent high, and when you come down there’s a very big emptiness, which is frightening, so it’s good that there’s a life going on here— people, family, children.”
Rampling learned early to feel comfortable as a foreigner. She and her sister grew up partly in Fontainebleau; their father was a colonel in the British army. “It was the best kind of displacement. I felt free specifically because I wasn’t French.” She began doing amateur theatricals in a suburb of London, and the first five films she was in were English. Then began a series of bolting moves from one country to another. “I kept leaving places because of things happening,” she says. Dramatic and terrible things. Her beloved sister died at twenty-two, when Rampling was twenty-one. “It made me run, like a wild thing, for years. I didn’t stop until I was thirty.”
She ran first to Italy, and when she returned to London she “got involved with someone who turned out to be very dangerous. I suddenly realized that all these Irishmen who were hanging around the house were sort of blowing things up. So I left.” Her first stretch in Hollywood was in 1970. “Success in my terms had nothing to do with what the Americans wanted. You were just a name on a list, and if you were bankable, your name went up the list, and if the next film didn’t make any money, you went down the list. I’d been there a year and done three films, had become more and more isolated, emptier and emptier, and finally knew I shouldn’t be there. I came back to London, and that’s when my friend Bryan said, ‘Come and live with me.’ “
At that point Bryan Southcombe was sharing an apartment with a male model named Randall Lawrence. One day a reporter friend casually asked Charlotte, “If you could choose, which one would you marry?” Charlotte answered teasingly, “How could I choose? I love them both.” This answer became a headline scandal that dogs her to this day. “You couldn’t make that kind of remark in any innocence at the end of the sixties,” she says.
She has never lived alone. “There’s always been a man there,” she says, “but I’m a very alone sort of person. In fact, I’m appallingly solitary.” With Bryan she again left England, this time for tax reasons. They had a house in the South of France, and returned to Hollywood. “Bryan wanted me to be more part of the Hollywood scene; he got me Jay Bernstein as a manager to make me into— ta-da!—the sultry European actress in Hollywood. It was an absolute Tinseltown razzmatazz, which ended up dust.” She did Farewell My Lovely with Robert Mitchum, Foxtrot, a film that vanished, with Peter O’Toole, and Orca—Killer Whale “because we needed the money.”
Before she began shooting Orca, she met Jean-Michel. “I had come back from America to the South of France, and one night at dinner I met Jean-Michel with a friend of Bryan’s. Then I went to Paris, and for some reason I was alone, and Jean-Michel called, and we took off together. It was my next move. I don’t say this in a flippant way. I thought, This is who I want to be with now.
“Romantic story?” she asks, sitting on the atom-patterned sofa, a ray of sun turning her hand to gold. “I think it’s decided for you, the different moves in your life. You’ve got to have a lot of signals from somebody that by following through you’re going to get a lot back. I was shocked into it. I was not in good shape; I’d been traveling so much and living nowhere and working so hard. And suddenly something was actually happening, electrically and chemically, with somebody so extraordinary that you actually took off. Everything that he was was just exactly as I’d always imagined a kind of connection like that to be. Even the way we fit: Jean-Michel has a very long and thin and almost feminine body; we were almost exactly the same size; it was like seeing my double in male form. That’s what I’ve always felt—it’s almost a brother-sister thing. I always wanted a brother.
“I knew my father wanted a boy, that I was a disappointment, the second daughter. Growing up, I avoided everything about being a woman, couldn’t bear puberty. I thought of myself as almost asexual. It seemed bizarre when I began to change into a woman.
“Jean-Michel didn’t have all the hang-ups, the worries, the machismo of the men I’d known. It was like something from a different planet, a flash, and it still is. He walks into a room and it’s like I’m seeing myself in male form. And all the things that frightened and dismayed him about women—what he couldn’t connect to in the female world—were all the things I couldn’t connect to either. Right down to the things you wear, the way you are, the skin texture, everything—a mirror. What connects you to anything in life is the mirror thing that you get back from somebody; when people speak to you as if you’re speaking to yourself, they are telling you things that are absolutely the things you need to hear.
“I can’t imagine how a relationship could work, if you’re an actress, unless you have somebody who has an equally secure world of his own that he can enter.”
“We both thought we’d be very grownup and go back to our respective spouses, and it lasted a day for both of us. He had a baby, a little girl of one, Emilie, and Barnaby was three, and I was committed to do Orca and The Purple Taxi, and we both just split. I called my mother, and she was amazed to hear my voice sound normal for the first time in years. She knew everything was O.K. Up till then I had been. . . unstable, because of this failure to connect with anybody. I managed, in a desperate way, to connect to the roles I played and the people I acted with. They were my hold on life. And then I’d always have to leave, get up and go, move on.”
She stopped working after marrying Jean-Michel. “I thought, I have to live this for real and fully, and if I keep working I won’t be able to understand it and make it necessary to me. It was like coming off a drug. A screenplay would arrive, and I’d break out in a sweat and not know what to do. What if I read it and liked it? Up until then all my powerful emotions had gone into filming. I had been inventing myself through the parts I played. That’s why I was so shocked when I met Jean-Michel, because my life wasn’t important, only the films. And now I didn’t want to do any more films, because I had met this reality that I’d only ever had before in films.”
David was born soon after they married, in 1977. The first film she did after her deliberate exile was Stardust Memories. “Woody Allen was the perfect person to start me off again. He gave me the possibility of playing a really screwed-up character in a very loving environment.”
Charlotte Rampling seems to have attained a balance between emotional safety and danger. “For me, time doesn’t exist, so there is no routine. But there is a rhythm of life, and it’s a question of being in rhythm with somebody, so that nothing actually jars. Jean-Michel doesn’t take my moods personally, which frees me tremendously. But I can’t imagine how a relationship could work, if you’re an actress, unless you have somebody who has an equally secure world of his own that he can enter. He’s absorbed in his music, but he knows me, the kaleidoscopic states of my personality, better than anybody. He doesn’t go on the film sets; he just holds on and hopes I don’t come back too much of a wreck. He has a very strong feeling about the areas he can control in terms of our life together, and for a few years I had to rely on him to guide me. I had never given power like that to anyone.
“I had to be perceived by somebody, because only by creating an image of myself could I exist. The image I played, the person I decided to be, was someone very much in control, cool, and who played a game. What you project makes you become the figment of somebody’s imagination. That’s all you are. To the outside world you’re a memory, a photo, a piece of celluloid; you’re an emotion, a threat, a fear, a fantasy. You are only a figment of the image. When you walk into a room, you meet someone who is going to react because you trigger off something they have thought about, or something inside them, because of what they’ve seen. You have no idea what that is, for them, which is why there’s a lot of danger out there. And it doesn’t matter anymore once you have someone to share your life with.”
When Jean-Michel is staging one of his gigantic light-and-music shows, she goes with him, camera in hand, and takes pictures, an observer. “He’s never given me any reason to be jealous, and he doesn’t mind that I go off and do love scenes with sensational-looking men. If you don’t trust, nothing works.”
Her choice of films since her marriage and her return to work has remained consistently bizarre and provocative. “My dark side belongs to my work, and luckily I am able to have sufficient material to play around with it. The Night Porter was a recognition of that, of wanting to investigate those areas. I wouldn’t be brave enough to go into areas like that on my own; when filming, I’m doing it with a team of fifty people on my side, supporting me, ready to pick me up. I know that for a few years I can still do that in film. I can still experience all the heightened emotions, which is why I seek characters who have the range to take me to that sort of high. My mother says, ‘Can’t you do nice films like A Room with a View or Out of Africa?”
“There’s an idea of destiny in fiction, in the parts I choose. The idea that you have to go right through to the end. To me life is just a rehearsal, and I’m bumbling through making a lot of mistakes, like everyone, but films are the moment when I can live out the pressures I feel. They give me the possibility to play with all these demons. Nudity and sex in films just feel terribly familiar; in reality I’m far shier. I’ve done a lot of stories to do with incest; I’ve tended to take those scripts, because it’s a forbidden aspect of love, and there are so few forbidden aspects anymore.”
Safe in her house, safe in her marriage, safe even in her dangerous parts, Charlotte Rampling really has only one area of insecurity, and she was in it when I first saw her looking so confident over the carrot sticks.
“We go out and see people and have dinners. I see them chatting and reacting, and it’s all quite interesting, and then when I’ve left them, it’s like I’ve left a movie set. It freaks the hell out of me. I’m not sure they’re even real.”
There are electronic keyboards all over the house, and each of the children plays a different instrument. Jean-Michel Jarre composes. Never forget that an actor’s instrument is the self.
©Joan Juliet Buck.