Charlotte Rampling: In from the cold

She has been the epitome of ice-cool sex appeal since the Sixties. Now, Charlotte Rampling says she's finally learnt to be happy too. Sholto Byrnes met her in Paris
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Ten minutes after I am due to meet Charlotte Rampling in a chic café near the Pont d'Alma in Paris, and there is no sign of the actress. Eventually an aide and an obsequious manager appear. Ms Rampling, it turns out, has been upstairs all along. The first floor, as a waiter had informed me, is indeed fermé; but it is closed so that Miss Rampling and a friend can enjoy their lunch in splendid seclusion.

Ten minutes after I am due to meet Charlotte Rampling in a chic café near the Pont d'Alma in Paris, and there is no sign of the actress. Eventually an aide and an obsequious manager appear. Ms Rampling, it turns out, has been upstairs all along. The first floor, as a waiter had informed me, is indeed fermé; but it is closed so that Miss Rampling and a friend can enjoy their lunch in splendid seclusion.

Of course it is. In France, she is known as La Légende, this colonel's daughter with the icy eyes, diamond-cut diction and much-remarked-upon cheekbones. Dirk Bogarde described her as having "the look", a gaze capable of expressing the most powerful horror. The verb derived from her surname, "to rample", was defined by Barry Norman as meaning to reduce a man to helplessness through a chilly, mysterious sexuality. She sounds, frankly, rather frightening. I wonder if she will be understanding about the delay.

"Oh, directors want me to be really stern sometimes," she says, after revealing herself, thankfully, to be anything but in the flesh. "They like that quality in a woman. They find it compelling." In Mike Hodges' 2003 film, I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, Rampling played Clive Owen's ex-girlfriend with a face only slightly less stony than Owen's granite lump. "I tried to warm it up a bit," she says, "but Mike wanted us to be terribly stern."

She laughs, and when she does so her face softens like that of a schoolgirl whispering naughty secrets to a friend. I'm sure Charlotte Rampling is capable of being just as terrifyingly cold as she appears to be in many of her films. In repose, her expression is not exactly twinkly. But today she appears happy, playful even, at times. She seems to have conquered the demons of depression that have long haunted her; or at least signed a workable truce with them.

"I didn't allow myself to have fun for a very long time, for all sorts of reasons," she says. "What's happened now is that I've lived through that, and I've come to a point where I can say that. I can feel happy too!" She adds these last words in a jolly-hockeysticks voice. There is no trace of the dominatrix figure, conjured up by her performances in a string of Seventies films that fuelled generations of male fantasies; nor of a more recent picture from the mid-Nineties, that of the revered English actress humiliated in her adopted country by her discovery through the tabloids that her second husband, the musician Jean Michel Jarre, was cheating on her.

If she seems buoyant, maybe that's because her career has had a resurgence in the last few years. A partnership with the young French director François Ozon has been particularly productive - their two films together, 2000's Under The Sand and 2003's Swimming Pool, both being very well received. She has also ventured into relatively unknown territory. A French adaptation of Joseph Connolly's dark and deeply English comic novel, Summer Things, released two years ago in the UK, was the first comedy she had done "for a very long time". She enjoyed the experience, and is keen to do more.

But her good humour is just as likely to be down to the fact that, at the age of 59, Rampling is to be married again. "It'll be my third marriage," she exclaims, drawing out the vowel in "third" as though such a number of nuptials was utterly scandalous. "Who had the most - Elizabeth Taylor with seven or eight?" Come, come, I say, and she concedes that it's not quite the same as being 25 and having several marriages under the belt - or "bunny jumps" as she quaintly calls such brief contracts.

Her business consultant fiancé, Jean-Noel Tassez, first proposed to her seven years ago. "He doesn't give up, does he?" she says. "Well, I couldn't say yes seven years ago because I was married. So he asked me if I was going to get divorced, and I sort of took a long time doing that." Rampling and Jarre finally divorced in 2002; she clearly found it difficult to let go. Did Jean-Noel keep asking in the meantime? f "It was a bit like that, it was rather sweet. And we're not spring chickens, either of us - although he's 10 years younger than me."

When, I ask, will the marriage be? "Well, we were going to get married this year," she says, "but I don't know whether we will. I won't tell you why, because it's too juicy." She can't say that, I tell her. "Yes, it's horrible for you, isn't it? You'll know why when another event happens. Anyway," she continues, before I have time to protest further, "so he's my fiancé. I like the idea of being married. We've been living in sin for eight years." I start guessing aloud what this other event could be. "Oh, all right, I'll tell you," she says. "I've been teasing. It's because Prince Charles is getting married, and it'll only be an aftermath marriage if we get married after Charles and Camilla."

The difference between cohabiting and marriage comes up next. She tells me that the two are very different. I ask how. "What? Are you saying, 'You've been there and done that'?" She roars with laughter.

If such humour is not entirely to be expected, it is because Rampling's life has not always been filled with levity. Born in 1946, Charlotte spent part of her childhood on the move as an army daughter. Ironically, given her later move to the country, the years in France as a young girl were not happy. Isolated by the language while at the Jeanne d'Arc Académie Pour Jeunes Filles at Versailles, she says she "lived in silence at that school for so long ... That's what formed me, so I only feel comfortable when I know that I can go somewhere else."

At 17 she was spotted on the street, and asked to appear in a Cadbury television commercial. This was the beginning of a career that soon included the films Rotten To The Core, Georgy Girl and The Knack. Then her elder sister committed suicide. "I was incredibly alive in my teens," she recalls, "it was swinging London, and I was absolutely right out there. Then when my sister died it all began to go haywire, and I started to go down different roads."

Those roads led to Visconti's The Damned and the film for which she is most famous, Liliana Cavani's The Night Porter, in which Rampling played a concentration camp survivor drawn back into a relationship with Dirk Bogarde's Nazi camp guard. "It was almost as though I didn't think I was allowed to do comedy," she says of that period.

The intensity of her performances was mirrored in her private life. In the early Seventies she lived in a menage à trois with her agent, Bryan Southcombe, and a male model. She married Southcombe, with whom she had a son, Barnaby, now a successful television director and a father of two. In 1976, however, she met Jean Michel Jarre at a dinner party; she left her husband the next day.

The Jarres had their own son, David (he works as a magician), and became a golden couple in France. For Rampling, however, depression was never far away, and in 1988 she had a serious breakdown. She had never come to terms with her sister's death, which until recently she publicly attributed to "a brain haemorrhage". Jarre supported her through this, but in 1995 the papers revealed his affair with a younger woman, and they separated.

Even the Sixties, Rampling reflects, were not all they were cracked up to be. "We weren't happy," she says. "It was a nightmare, breaking the rules and all that. It wasn't much fun. Everyone seemed to be having fun, but they were taking so many drugs they wouldn't know it anyway. And a lot of people got burnt out."

Recently she has made peace with the past. "That silence I had at school has actually helped me. I feel that's where I live most intimately." So it's a good place? "It is now. It wasn't when you're growing up, tumbling around, trying to find coherence. But I've lived with it long enough for it not to be a problem. I'm now comfortable with my silence."

How does she feel, I ask, about being considered a sexual icon at 59? Or rather, having read too many cuttings which give the wrong year for her birth, I ask her about being a sexual icon at 60. "You must correct this," she says, "it's written down so often that I was born in 1945 that even I thought I was going to be 60 this year. When I realised I was 59 I was quite pleased that I'd gained a year." Okay, 59. "Well, it's you that says it," she replies, pleased. "I'm just amazed. I'm glad to be alive, because I know what it's like not to want to be here, and glad that young directors want to put me in fantastic films. So say no more."

How did she imagine her career panning out when she started? "I had this deep feeling inside me, like an energy, that if I wanted to I could do incredible things. I didn't know specifically what I wanted to do, it might not even have been cinema. It was just to light fire, and fire people up to do things. Then lots of things in life smash you about, and you can lose that energy, but even when I was really down I never lost it.

"So now I've come out of it all, and that's when I really started having fun. I had fun before, but if you can have fun the way I have when I'm nearly 60, that's quite interesting. If you don't worry about getting wrinkled and all that, and you just allow yourself to feel good, then maybe it's because your time has come."

Ah, the wrinkles (not that she has many). Has she, ahem, ever had any thoughts about a little medical tidying up? Plastic surgery on her famously voluptuous eyelids, perhaps? "I've decided not to, until they're actually falling over my eyes." How does she regard her beauty? "I think you have to earn it. You can use it or abuse it however you want when you're young. It's a God-given gift. You have a visiting card - you can go into any room and someone will come and talk to you. But I've always thought from very early on that you have to be careful with that - not being vain or narcissistic. Have fun, but don't be obsessed with it."

People imagine her to have a fantastically fabulous life, I say. What does she actually do when she's not making films? "Well I do have a fabulous life. I go to lunch in fab restaurants, go to the theatre, see friends. I love not being occupied. There's a lovely word in French which I don't think exists in English - flâner. Paris is the most beautiful city to flâner in - passing time, reading a book in a café, having a nice kir and a coffee, calling up a friend."

We talk of British and European cinema, and her new film, The Keys to the House, in which she plays the mother of a severely disabled girl. The film is in Italian. How English does she consider herself to be now? "It's like the colonials," she says. "The English do like to get out of England. I've been out longer than most. But you never leave, you always have that pull." She keeps a residence in Chelsea as well as Paris to avoid "that melancholy of not feeling at home in your home ... It gives me a sense of freedom to have homes in both places."

Just before I leave, I ask her how much the "colonel's daughter" she is. "Oh, quite a lot," she replies. "I'm very rules, regulations and all that. They structure you, keep you safe." But not conventions? "Never. I've just always done what I felt, as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else and it doesn't make a horrible mess somewhere."

And so I wave goodbye to La Légende, part kindly, mischievous granny, and part glacial screen icon. As admired as the latter is, I'm glad I met the former. She seems a lot more fun - and not frightening at all.

'The Keys to the House' opens on Friday