Here's your starter for 60: what do Susan Sarandon, Cher, Diane Keaton, Joanna Lumley, Patti Smith, Jane Birkin, Dolly Parton and Charlotte Rampling have in common? The old platitude claims that showbusiness has no space for ladies of a certain age. But these women, who all enter their seventh decade this year, are glamorous, busy and successful. Some are very much up for erotic roles: Rampling plays a predatory female sex tourist in one of her upcoming films. They are also, on occasion, happy to strip for the camera: remember the impressively toned Keaton in Something's Gotta Give? Collectively, they're putting the sex back into sexagenarian.
Rampling is, perhaps, the most remarkable of them. This year so far, apart from celebrating the big birthday (on 5 February), she has led the jury at the Berlin Film Festival, is currently shooting a movie in Britain with François Ozon and will be seen here shortly in work by two more of France's most highly regarded directors. And she is also in Basic Instinct 2.
Yet, only a few years ago, she looked in a bad way. Mired in depression, she was scrabbling for dowager roles: the dotty spinster Miss Havisham in Great Expectations, the scheming Aunt Maude in The Wings of the Dove. Then in 2000 Ozon cast her in Under the Sand, the eerie story of a woman unable to accept her husband's sudden mysterious disappearance. Virtually alone on screen for much of the film, gliding from the easy intimacy of a long and comfortable marriage, to obsessive grief and, eventually, a desperate eroticism with a replacement lover, Rampling was a revelation. Under the Sand was a huge success in France and ever since film-makers have been queuing up to work with her. "I don't seek directors out; they seek me out," she says now.
When we meet in Paris, where she has been based for nearly 30 years (though she maintains a pied-à-terre in Chelsea), Rampling is looking good - very good, in fact, with those splendid cheekbones and smoky bedroom eyes. She wears black cigarette pants and a crisp white shirt: classic French chic quickened with the shock multicoloured splash of a tailored floral jacket. "I thought I'd put on some flowers for you," she says. "As a rule, I'm always in black." She seems in good spirits. Crisp and commanding when she speaks English, her low voice becomes seductive when she slides into fluent French.
Rampling's present partner is Jean-Noel Tassez, a business consultant a decade her junior. Before that, there were two marriages, to her then-agent, Bryan Southcombe, with whom she had a son, Barnaby, in 1973, and to the musician Jean Michel Jarre; their son, David, is 29. That union, which lasted more than 20 years, ended in 1997 when Jarre had an affair. It was, she feels, a result, rather than the cause of her recurring bouts of depression. These she links instead to the long-ago death of her elder sister. Rampling had always claimed her sister's death was due to a brain haemorrhage; only recently did she reveal that it was, in fact, suicide.
After Under the Sand, Ozon created another terrific role for her in Swimming Pool, as Sarah (named in memory of Rampling's sister), a desiccated murder-mystery writer who discovers her inner vamp during a holiday in the South of France. "People say to me, 'You came alive again when François Ozon came into your life.' Not at all! He helped me because I opened the doors and he saw that I was already on my way there," she says.
Her first new film, Lemming, opened Cannes last year and arrives here on 28 April. It's a psychothriller with supernatural undertones, about the destructive friendship between two married couples. "It starts as a black comedy and ends in absolute nightmare, all in very few scenes, a beautifully constructed film about an intrusion into an ordered world in which the anxiety is so heightened that you don't know where the real ends and the imaginary begins. When I read the script I knew it was out of the question for me not to appear in it."
The director, Dominik Moll, who earlier made the equally oddball Harry, He's Here To Help, says he was intrigued by the actress's complexity. "I wanted on the one hand for you to see the everyday quality of this woman but on the other hand that she should be extremely seductive, that she should scare you and that she should have something very fragile about her. Charlotte Rampling simply contains all these things in her," he tells me later.
It's a view echoed by fellow director Laurent Cantet. "She put her career on hold a bit and now she has decided to start again," he says. "She's of an age to play different kinds of characters from those she played before. And she is so fascinating that directors want to build roles around her."
If Lemming is a fairly lightweight turn for Rampling, Cantet's film, Heading South, which opens this summer, is meatier fare. It's set in Haiti in the Seventies, the grim era of Baby Doc Duvalier's dictatorship. Not that this is of any interest to the wealthy North American women who go there to top up their tans and pursue the local talent. Rampling is the queen bee of this coterie, brittle and alluring.
"The film shows the meeting of two different forms of suffering: the poverty and anarchy and chaos of this beautiful country and the poverty of women who think they have to find love so far from their own culture."
Here - as in Under the Sand and Swimming Pool - Rampling had no hesitation in baring herself alongside the film's handsome young male actors. "The camera can be unforgiving, much more so than we see ourselves. You can see yourself in the mirror and think, 'Oh, I look good', but then on camera you start to notice other angles which you haven't examined. But it's quite moving to see a woman who was once young and beautiful - you see time turning.
"Every single human being can be absolutely beautiful if they still desire to live and still desire to be desired. Then there will be somebody who desires them, and just one person is enough: it means you are still a sexual and sensual creature. But it's for you to make it happen."
The British have never known what to do with her. After making a few films - The Knack; Georgy Girl - which helped define London in the Sixties, she should have been one of our great screen icons. "There was a lot of money and talent around," she recalls. "The artistic potential was limitless and we could experiment. But it didn't really last. It seemed to be too easy just to skip about and be pretty, which was what people wanted me to do when I was 20. I said, 'Well, no, this is really not very interesting - I'd like to go deeper into the human psyche.'"
So she simply took herself off elsewhere and worked with the likes of Liliana Cavani (The Night Porter), Woody Allen (Stardust Memories) and Luchino Visconti (The Damned). Visconti told her that if she went to America, it would eat her up but if she went with quality, it would always pay off though it would be a very long journey. It turned out to be excellent, prescient advice. "I took a round trip around Hollywood because I think it frightened me," she says today. "I didn't want to get burned in that glare."
She does make the occasional foray into mainstream studio pictures: Basic Instinct 2, of course. "Well, why not?" says Rampling, whose role - as a psychiatrist - was notable for allowing her to deliver the deathless line, "How very Lacanian". At least she hit it off with Sharon Stone. "We're two feisty creatures," she says.
Rampling is content to be in the sun again. "Everyone wants to have a pat on the back. In the end we're just making stories, some more important than others, and you think you're still a kid and allowed to do all sorts of things and get away with it. Then suddenly you realise you've grown up."
'Lemming' opens on 28 AprilReuse content