Charlotte Rampling: 'I've lived with fear all my life'

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She has never been afraid to bare her soul on screen – but talking about the anxieties that led to a very public breakdown has not been easy for Charlotte Rampling. Which only makes her new film all the more intriguing...

It was Dirk Bogarde who famously christened Charlotte Rampling's ice-cool gaze "the look". Even now, at 66, she has a way of transfixing you with a Medusa-like stare and sly smile that have bewitched so many men (her Stardust Memories director Woody Allen declared her "the ideal woman"). Today, she's hiding her glances behind a pair of designer sunglasses. I feel almost denied, until she removes them to reveal those feline eyes.

Terribly British on the surface, remarkably European underneath, Rampling has been taking risks in her work for more than four decades, ever since she played a Gestapo victim in Luchino Visconti's 1969 film The Damned, alongside Bogarde. It opened her up to a very "different" way of making films, she says, one that was "much more to do k with the senses". It's this ability to plunge far below the refined exterior that characterises her. Think of her in François Ozon's Under the Sand (2000) as a woman whose husband goes missing; rarely has an actress given such a powerful portrait of interior grief, confusion and sorrow.

Casting her in that film when, as he put it, financiers told him "nobody cares about Charlotte Rampling", Ozon can be credited for reviving her career from a 1990s slump, which coincided with the tumultuous end of her second marriage and a personal meltdown. Since then, she has worked at a furious rate, with prestigious European directors such as Lars von Trier (Melancholia) and Dominik Moll (Lemming) queuing up for her. "They can't give you lead roles necessarily, but they can give you memorable moments in their films," she says. "And that's what I do a lot."

I meet Rampling for my own memorable moment on the patio of a small hotel in Cannes. I'm here to talk to her about her latest project, which takes its name from Bogarde's epithet. Dubbed "a self-portrait through others", The Look is a highly unusual and occasionally frustrating attempt to capture her essence, to dissect just why she has this hold over so many. Shot on and off over four years by German-born Angelina Maccarone, it eschews the usual "talking heads" format that most documentaries employ.

Under headings such as "Desire", "Demons" and "Death", the film is divided into eight sections, in each of which Rampling can be found in conversation with a close friend – writers, painters, photographers, directors. Some, such as the novelist Paul Auster, are well known. Others, such as the production designer Franckie Diago, with whom Rampling worked on the 2005 sex-tourism film Heading South, are not. Nobody is given a formal introduction. The poet Frederick Seidel doesn't even appear on screen. And when Rampling meets the film-maker Barnaby Southcombe, there is no reference to the fact that he is her son.

By her own admission, she was a reluctant subject. "I wanted and didn't want to do this," she says. Initially, the producer Michael Trabitzsch came to her with the idea of doing a more conventional documentary. "But I couldn't do it. I didn't want people talking about me! When you have to talk about somebody in a documentary, the director will go around and find people I've worked with and done things with, and they'll say, 'Charlotte this and Charlotte that' – they'll all say very nice things! So it's not terribly interesting."

Unwilling to commit, Rampling relented only after years of persistence from Trabitzsch. "I'm very shy of doing these sort of things," she says. "I don't do them. This is the first one. But I did it because finding this concept, even if it's going to be uneasy and uncomfortable... it could actually be a really interesting thing to do, to trace a life in this way. Cinematically." Obligatory clips from her work serve to illustrate her career, even her beauty, but it's the tête-à-têtes that are there to prise her open.

While Rampling claims that she was "completely open" and uncensored throughout, you can't help but feel that she is fully in control. In the opening segment, "Exposure", for example, she quite literally turns the camera on photographer Peter Lindbergh, making him pose for pictures (a unique experience for him, apparently). No mention is made of her relationships – to Barnaby's father, the actor and publicist Bryan Southcombe, to whom she was briefly married, or to her second husband, the French composer Jean-Michel Jarre, a marriage that lasted 20 years and ended acrimoniously when an affair he had went public.

Likewise, her current companion, the French businessman Jean-Noël Tassez, with whom she lives in Paris and to whom she has been engaged since 1998, is absent from conversations. Even when Rampling mentions her sister Sarah, who committed suicide when she was 23 shortly after giving birth to a premature baby, her voice seems dispassionate. But then you can hardly blame her. For years, Rampling covered up the matter in the press, attributing it to a brain haemorrhage, because her father did not want her mother to find out the truth.

Far more potent is her understanding of her own image. "If you want to give anything worthwhile of yourself, you have to feel completely exposed," she tells Lindbergh. Another segment ("Taboo") demonstrates just this, as she and the photographer Juergen Teller recount the subversive spring 2004 Marc Jabobs ad campaign for which he shot Rampling in a series of risqué self-portraits entitled "Louis XV". Stretching back to Liliana Cavani's controversial 1974 film The Night Porter, in which she reunited with Bogarde, playing concentration-camp victim to his Nazi-guard tormentor, this is one actress who has never been afraid to bare her flesh, as well as her soul, on screen.

But why not approach all this in a conventional written biography? "That I've tried many times, and that I could never get to for the same reasons," she says. "Just too personal." Five years ago, it was widely reported that Rampling signed a contract with the publisher Bloomsbury, worth a rumoured £200,000, to produce a memoir. Set to cover her two marriages, "it was supposed to be a cautionary tale about how she had gone through many trials and emerged to have a fulfilled life", according to the author Barbara Victor, who conducted 100 hours of interviews with the actress.

Rampling eventually backed out, handing the advance back. "When I get in front of my own personal life... not because I have anything to hide, I'm quite happy to talk about anything, it's not that – it's just too difficult," she says. "It just becomes too exposed with the words, what I lived. What I'd like to do is something in the forms of reminiscences. Moments that I remember that I would really like to talk about. Liv Ullmann wrote a fabulous book [Changing] which was just that – chapters of reminiscence. Maybe that would work, as I would love to do something in words."

We move on to "Ageing", her segment with Auster in The Look. She has, as they say, grown old gracefully – no mean feat in a profession that values youth above all else. "You've got to wait," she says. "You've got not to panic, not to be frightened, and not to change your face. You need your face to grow with you," she says. You mean plastic surgery? "Yeah, because then people don't know what age you are. You look a certain age but there is a problem with that if women can't live with their faces as they're growing into them. There's always a frightening point when your face starts to change, and that's when you want to change it. But if you go through that change – and it lasts quite a long time, maybe 10 years – then you find actually that you've grown into an older face." k

Even now, Rampling is still referred to as a sex symbol. How does that make her feel? "I don't know," she groans, pausing for a moment. "It means that I'm still alive, which is great. It's about being alive. It's about finding ways to keep yourself somewhere. We can all close the doors very quickly, and I'd be the first [to do that] – I really have to kick myself out the front door every day. It's a huge effort for me, the survival thing. Which I'm sure is [the same for] everyone. We don't talk about it a lot. I'm talking about it now, but we don't know how people can actually stay awake, stay alive... but I am still here."

It's not just adulation that keeps her alive; she talks of acting in terms of hazard, sacrifice and putting herself in the hands of fate. "It takes me an awful long time to get to the edge of the cliff. I have to really be encouraged and coaxed and a lot of things have to happen to get me on to that edge... but the only way I can function is to jump off that cliff!" She fixes me with that stare, clarifying that we're talking about a metaphorical leap into the unknown. "The only way life is interesting to me – and I'm in a particular profession where I can do this – is to jump off the cliff. This is what excites me."

I ask whether this is something that stems right back to her younger days, working for the likes of Visconti and Cavani. "I've always felt that," she says, nodding. "That's never changed. And I think that's what keeps me alive really. I very often don't want to work for long, long periods, but I know I have to keep awake, so if there is something that's coming... I know what it is to be depressed. I've had severe depression. So if you start to close down, then you know that coming out of that 'closing down' takes so long. I don't have the time to do that any more, so I have to keep awake."

Rampling was first treated for depression in 1984 and, seven years later, suffered a nervous breakdown in the midst of her marriage to Jarre. Our conversation turns to fear, and the paralysis it can lead to. "This is where you go into depression, because you can't move, because you're so frightened. You don't know what you're frightened about. Nobody's threatening you but actually everything is threatening you. You need to get to a point where fear is useful; fear is very useful. Fear is a great motor. It's the greatest motor. The greatest things are done through a sense of adrenaline-fuelled fear, I think. Ask a racing driver just before he's about to start driving what he feels."

Of course, acting on a film set – this cliff edge she talks about – is hardly the same as sitting behind the wheel of a Formula One car. "Yeah, that's true," she says, sounding deflated. "Perhaps the analogy wasn't right." Then she perks up. "Perhaps it is terribly dangerous for me, filming! Perhaps all this expressing of emotion is dangerous. It's been fascinating. I've asked so many people about it, and I've researched fear so much. A lot of time fear is about things that we don't know about – invisible enemies and demons. I've lived with fear all my life. I know more now what it's like to not live with fear but I don't really know what it's like to live without fear. Do you?" I shake my head.

Since The Look, Rampling has shot I, Anna, with her son Barnaby, who makes his directorial debut with the film – a tricksy psychological noir, set in London and co-starring Gabriel Byrne. Rampling describes her role as "an ageing femme fatale" – but admits that she disliked the early attempts at adapting the novel by Elsa Lewin. And, having made a pact with her son to always be brutally honest, she told him so. "She's been quite hurtful in the past," says Southcombe. "She doesn't mince her words."

Was Rampling worried that she might crush her son's creative spirit with her tough love? "You worry about it. But it's like bringing up kids – how tough should you be, bringing up kids? When do you say, 'That's a load of crap. Why are you doing that?' It's the delicate balance of parenthood, not to break your child's spirit but to actually build your child's spirit through healthy competition and argument. I know it's hard." At this point, I can only assume a look of mild horror has crossed my face. "You're looking at me like 'I wouldn't want her as a mum!'" she says, collapsing into a throaty laugh.

In truth, you can see just how fiercely proud she is of him. "Barnaby was like a circus boy. He was brought up on film sets." He was just four months old, "in a basket in my dressing-room", when she made The Night Porter. "From then on, until he really started serious schooling, he was just there. It was like he's been born into this business. And then he started to be fascinated by it, when he was older. He'd always come and visit me on set, and be part of the sets. He was one of the people that I could bear visiting! We'd just have this bond. Barnaby was always cool on film sets."

Rampling, who has a second son, the magician David Jarre, from her second marriage, blushes when I ask whether she thinks she did a good job of raising him. "I don't allow myself those kinds of feelings," she says, in a hushed tone. Doesn't every parent think that? "I don't think every parent does. I don't know. I was brought up in the hard way. My parents were great, my dad was great, but we didn't talk about our feelings. And I think I don't really do it with my children. I brought them up quite tough."

Rampling's own childhood was lonely, in part due to her father's career in the army forcing frequent family moves. She spent part of her early years in France, attending the Jeanne d'Arc Académie Pour Jeunes Filles in Versailles, despite knowing barely a word of French. Her father later put a stop to her and her sister joining a nightclub as singers, instead sending the 17-year-old Rampling to secretarial school. So it was somewhat ironic when she was spotted while working in a typing pool and cast in a Cadbury ad. It led to her first role in Richard Lester's 1965 film The Knack... and How to Get It, swiftly followed by her hedonistic Meredith in Georgy Girl.

"Right from the beginning, when I started, I knew that this was probably the way I was going to go for the rest of my life, because I knew that something happened," she says. "It was just as if I was made for this. I was so at home, so at ease. I knew that I had something that worked for me." It's this unshakeable belief in her place in the world that, even through the tough times, has never left her. That and her renegade spirit. "All the things I say, I say with a huge lot of belief and heart," she says. And with that, she gives me that look, one more time.

'The Look' screens at the National Film Theatre on 27 April, followed by a Q&A with Charlotte Rampling (bfi.org.uk). It is out on DVD (Park Circus) on 30 April. 'I, Anna' will be released later this year

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