Film Studies: It took her 60 years to get there, but Charlotte has reached her prime

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The Independent Culture

Charlotte Rampling is 60 this year, and in the history of the movies I doubt that any woman her age has felt inclined to show us as much of herself. In what has always been an unpredictable career, nothing has been as surprising or as welcome as her recent emergence in modest French films as a woman of her own age, with a sex life and romantic longings as steady as those of, say, Kate Bosworth. Just more interesting.

If you marvelled politely at Rampling a few years ago in Under the Sand, and then felt ready to stand up and applaud her serene contest with a 20-year-old in Swimming Pool (both films by François Ozon), you are at least prepared for her latest picture. In Heading South, by Laurent Cantet, she plays Ellen, a professor of French literature from Boston, who has so given up on meeting men her own age that she goes to Haiti for a holiday to have sex with young black men. The film is also about much more - about political awareness instead of mere sexual hedonism. But, once again, Rampling has made a small clearing in the dense forest: there may be room in our movies for intelligent women of her age.

Of course, they still need to be knock-outs, and it was possible in cinemas during Swimming Pool to hear both the whistles and the sighs that Rampling's lean eroticism attracted without the benefit of special effects. No one her age can match her figure. Yet the face does own up to its age, just as it tells the old story - that Rampling is a lady, smart, reserved and just a touch cold.

She was the daughter of a British Army officer, and that is how she split her education between Paris and Britain as her father worked for Nato - so she is bi-lingual. She had a brief moment in the new British films of the Sixties - The Knack, Rotten to the Core and Georgy Girl. But she actually established herself as a European.

Luchino Visconti cast her in The Damned when she was still very young, and her refined yet slightly cruel face sank in upon Liliana Cavani, who gave her the female lead in The Night Porter in 1973. In that film, set in Vienna in 1957, she is Lucia Atherton, visiting the city with her husband, a musical conductor. But she recognises Max (Dirk Bogarde), an SS officer who tortured her during the war. She does not inform on him. But when her husband's itinerary takes him away, she stays behind in Vienna and moves into the hotel where Max is night porter. The hotel is a hide-out for ex-Nazis. Their affair resumes.

The trashy film was a commercial sensation, because a lot of the time Rampling wore little and suffered a great deal. She was anorexic, fascistic and a saint of sado-masochism, but she didn't do a lot of acting.

Perhaps her role was so crazy that was the only sane response. And although the film made her famous, it was hardly a look or a sensibility that casting directors could develop. Her career never gathered momentum. She was in Zardoz with Sean Connery, with such a frozen appearance that you excused her from having to understand its bizarre plot. She was a femme fatale in Farewell, My Lovely, the film where Robert Mitchum played Philip Marlowe, and she could make the right sinister moves. But her face was a mask until Woody Allen opened her up in Stardust Memories, where she plays the girlfriend on the edge of a breakdown. All of a sudden, she was hurting, and we hurt as we watched her.

Just a couple of years later, she gave what I still think is her best movie performance - as the lawyer's girlfriend in The Verdict, who sells him out to the other side in the big case. She had a sadness and a solitude in that film that were haunting, and when Paul Newman slugs her at the end (not an undeserved action) you feel her whole life break up.

But then she didn't work steadily in the Eighties. It was said that she was enjoying married life in France. She did make one extraordinary film, in 1986, for the Japanese director, Nagisa Oshima, Max My Love where she is in love with a gorilla. Why she took the role isn't that clear, but she did leave you believing that she was hot for the monkey. She was very impressive again as the Thatcherite politician in David Hare's Paris by Night.

She roamed around and there were glimpses of her here and there - a witch in Angel Heart; in Radetzky March for Axel Corti; in Iain Softley's The Wings of the Dove, but too old for the lead; as Miss Havisham in Alfonso Cuaron's Great Expectations; in Hans Petter Moland's Aberdeen; and in Mike Hodges' I'll Sleep When I'm Dead. It was around that time that she started working for François Ozon and now she seems poised to make middle-aged women a new movie attraction.

I'm still not sure what to make of her, though. Once upon a time when she did nothing in a film it was because she seemed numb or scared; now she has learned to do it with a confidence that comes from thinking her own thoughts. She was well cast as the novelist in Swimming Pool, as someone observing and arranging life, but not quite joining in. Indeed, in the walking-on-broken-glass games in The Night Porter she had exactly that detachment. It's hard to judge how far this may go. But by now I'd guess that her figure is safe, and if she looks older in the face, well, she may combine a wintry wisdom with a boy's body. (I seem to remember amid Zardoz that there was a moment when she and Connery became very old.)

But it's clear that she is a modern icon for pensioners with sex lives. And good for us all, because of it. I am still not sure whether she can act, or does she just stand there wondering about the difference between a profiterole and a gruelling hour with an SS man?

'Heading South' is released on Friday