Charlotte Rampling: Magnetic, depressed and creative - an actress of our times

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The Independent Online

There were once two people, both called Charlotte Rampling. There was the cult figure with a cat's body and cat's eyes, first projected on the world's consciousness by a series of bizarre, sexually disturbing movies in the 1970s. This was a woman who said that she could "have any man that she wanted"; a woman with a slender, sculpted body and a green, enigmatic gaze, which fired a million teenage fantasies (and not just in the minds of teenagers); a woman who became a verb, to "rample". (To "rample" someone, according to Barry Norman, is to render them helpless with a kind of coldly, elusive sexuality.)

There was also another Charlotte Rampling: a modest, thoughtful, charming, slightly scatty woman; a devoted wife and mother; a keeper of wrenching secrets, prone to bouts of crippling depression; a woman who was a star, and who married another star (the French musician Jean-Michel Jarre) but refused stardom and seemed, at one point, to be about to vanish from the public view altogether.

Woody Allen once said that his perfect dinner party would have to include among its guests Franz Kafka and Charlotte Rampling. Which of the two Charlotte Ramplings he had in mind is unclear. Perhaps both. The film that they made together - Stardust Memories (1980) - comes the closest of any of her early movies to bringing the two Charlottes together.

"Two days a month she was the most fabulous woman in the world. The rest of the time she was a basket case," Allen says of his girlfriend in the film. The off-screen Charlotte once said: "Those are Woody Allen's lines. But that's sort of me anyway. It was very much me, that part." In the past three years, with the help of a brilliant, young, French film director, François Ozon, the two Charlottes have finally, if not merged, at least converged. Triumphantly so.

Two haunting movies, shaped for and partly by Charlotte Rampling herself - Under the Sand (2000) and Swimming Pool (2003), which has just opened in Britain following a successful early run in the US - have resurrected, or rediscovered, a woman and an icon, who seemed to have lost her way as an actress.

In the movies, Rampling plays complex women in late middle age, who grapple with loss, grief, betrayal, depression and denial. Although the storylines do not overlap with her own life, many of the emotions and experiences do. It is only recently - partly through making the films, partly because of her mother's death - that Charlotte Rampling has spoken openly about the suicide of her beloved elder sister Sarah 30 years ago. She and her father, who is in his 90s, kept the secret of the suicide from her mother for 30 years.

Rampling has also spoken publicly about her divorce from Jarre, the man she still describes as the love of her life, despite her new partnership with a French businessman, Jean-Noël Tassez. Her love affair with Jarre was real, she said, but her projection of a contented, perfect family life with their three children in a chateau near Versailles was partly a way of fending off the demons from the past, and especially the buried memory of her sister's death. By the end of the 1980s, the demons broke through and Rampling was treated for long periods of clinical depression.

These experiences suffuse both movies. Ozon rewrote large parts of Under the Sand to give more breathing room to Rampling's extraordinary portrayal of Marie, a wife who refuses to accept that her husband is dead (probably from suicide), months after he disappears on a beach. In Swimming Pool, she plays an ageing, sexually and professionally frustrated detective novelist, who becomes obsessed with her publisher's daughter.

Through all of this, Rampling manages to project a profound sexuality, despite the competition of a much younger actress, Ludivine Sagnier, in Swimming Pool. At 58, Charlotte Rampling still ramples.

Rampling was born in Sturmer in Essex in February 1945. Her father, Godfrey, was an army colonel and a swimming gold medallist at the 1936 Olympics. Her mother, Anne, was a manufacturing heiress.

She was brought up partly in France - later to become her adopted country - when her father was posted to the then Nato military headquarters near Paris. As children living near Versailles, she and her sister Sarah dreamed of being singers, in the French style.

As a teenager, Charlotte made a brief attempt to become a singer at a cabaret in Spain. Her father put a rapid end to that career, ordering her into a secretarial school in London. She later described him as "a man who had shut himself off somewhere. I am not sure if it was because of the war or whether it was just his generation, but I did not feel able to really converse with him. He's in his 90s and now we can talk, but that only happened recently".

At 17, she was spotted on the street and made her acting debut in an advertisement for Cadbury's chocolate. This time her father could not stop her rise to fame - and notoriety. She had parts in some of the quintessential British films of the 1960s: The Knack and Georgy Girl. But her first great successes - and the source of her iconic status to this day - were her sulphurous roles in Luchino Visconti's The Damned (1969) and Liliana Cavani's The Night Porter (1973) with Dirk Bogarde, in which she played a victim of the Nazi concentration camps who is drawn back to her sadistic tormentor.

In 1966, her sister, Sarah, 23, a former model who was living in Argentina with her husband, died. For more than three decades, the cause of her death was described as a "brain haemorrhage". Her father insisted that her mother must never know that Sarah shot herself. He instructed Charlotte to "get on with her life". She admitted later that she "didn't grieve at all" - not at the time. By the early 1970s, Rampling's private life became, briefly, as notorious as her movies. She lived with two men, her agent, Bryan Southcombe, and a model, Randall Laurence. She insisted that she loved them both. She married Southcombe and moved to the south of France.

In 1976 she met Jean-Michel Jarre at a dinner party. "I looked at him, Jean-Michel, and it was instantaneous," she once said. "All the breath went from my body. Love at the sight of, for ever. We knew. We both knew." She left Southcombe the next day.

Charlotte helped to bring up Jarre's daughter Emilie, 26, from his first marriage, her son with Southcombe, Barnaby, 30, and their own son David, 24. Her movie career continued, fitfully, but she plunged into a much-documented, toy-infested private life near Versailles.

Despite appearances with Sean Connery, Robert Mitchum and Paul Newman, she refused a career in Hollywood, partly to remain close to Jarre and the children, partly from distaste for the American way of movies. "The way they work in America is really efficient and well run, but they just don't go deep enough for me into their subjects," she once said. "They like to appeal to larger audiences, so they don't get down into the character's inside, where I want to go."

In the late 1980s, Rampling's happy life in France - partly genuine, partly forced - collapsed. She later described in a magazine article her depression and rage and fits of crying. During a holiday in the Seychelles in 1988, she had her first serious breakdown: "I had everything and yet I felt so desolate, so desperate. It is a lonely place, depression. It is inexplicable. People would say to me, 'Why don't you come out to this or that party. It'll cheer you up?' How can they not see it goes deeper than that?"

Rampling attributes her breakdowns to her refusal to face up to her sister's death. Jarre was hugely supportive, she says. He remained with her for another seven years but their relationship broke up in 1995, when he began a love affair with a younger woman. "He broke something inside me. It wasn't that I didn't love him any more - you cannot undo 20 years of life together and I have no wish to do so - but he broke a trust in me and then I could not rebuild it. It is not uncommon for a man to have an affair, or even for a woman to have an affair. But the way I found out! In the tabloids. It was demeaning. And then for it to have continued. No, I could not forgive that at the time. One day Jean-Michel left and he didn't come back. He didn't say he wasn't coming back - he just never reappeared."

Despite her periods of intense depression from the late 1980s, Charlotte Rampling never stopped working as an actress for long. She largely withdrew from the international film world in the 1990s but she continued to make a series of distinguished and undistinguished movies and TV films in her adopted country, France.

Rampling now lives mostly in her apartment near the Jardins de Luxembourg in the sixth arrondissement of Paris, home to Catherine Deneuve and many other French movie stars. She is part of a select group of British actresses - the other principal members are Jane Birkin and Kristin Scott Thomas - who live in France, have become partly French and are revered by the French for their talent and for their quintessential Britishness.

Rampling has never been forgotten in Britain. She has made appearances in recent years on British TV, including as Miss Havisham in a BBC serialisation of Great Expectations. However, it was the French movie industry that was the first to recognise her life's work in 2001 with a César - the French equivalent of an Oscar. The French government also recently awarded her the Légion d'Honneur. She has also been made an OBE - although for her "contribution to Franco-British relations", rather than for her film career.

Swimming Pool may not be a great movie, but Charlotte Rampling's performance has received rave reviews in France, the US and Britain. The film is an unexpected box-office success across the Atlantic. It could, belatedly, earn Charlotte Rampling the recognition she deserves in the US and Britain, not just as a cult icon of the 1970s, but as a courageous survivor and a memorable actress.

LIFE STORY

Born 5 February 1945 in Sturmer, near Braintree in Essex. Her father, Godfrey, was an Olympic swimming gold medallist, a British colonel and, later, a painter.

Family Married Jean-Michel Jarre (1976, separated in 1996). Two children: David, 24, with Jarre, and Barnaby, 30 with Bryan Southcombe. One step-daughter, Emilie, 26.

Education Jeanne d'Arc Académie pour Jeunes Filles in Versailles, France, and St Hilda's school in Bushley, Worcestershire.

Career After a stint as a model, she took up screen acting with a part in Richard Lester's The Knack (1965). Noted for roles in Georgy Girl (1966), The Damned (1969), The Night Porter (1973), Farewell My Lovely (1975), Stardust Memories (1980), The Verdict (1982), Max, Mon Amour (1986), DOA (1988), The Wings of the Dove (1997), Under the Sand (2000), Swimming Pool (2003).

Honours

Festival tribute at the Créteil International Women's Film Festival, France (1995). Chevalier Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (1986), César (2001), OBE (2000).

She says

"If someone is really intelligent and focuses on a man, she can get anyone she wants. It's about a magnetism that I know I have. A lot of women have it, or can have it. If you use that power you can call people in, men and women.

They say

"I always wanted to be your trampoline" - from the song "Charlotte Rampling", by the British rock band Kinky Machine

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