“I had to take time off, OK?” Charlotte Rampling coolly hisses to our very first question (Where’ve you been?), confirming her own off-putting, mega-fatale legend right off the bat. “I don’t want to drag you down into the depths where I’ve been. . . . But it’s not because directors didn’t want to use me. I couldn’t work. I had to go underground. Film is all about light, and I couldn’t go into the light. I had to wait until I could, and now I can.”
Apparently, Rampling’s erratic résumé over the decades since her mod splash in 1966’s Georgy Girl and her subsequent Hollywood crash-and-burn (Farewell My Lovely, Orca, Zardoz, etc.) is the result of depression, a tunnel she now claims, however testily, to have more or less emerged from. You could’ve guessed as much this year from her vibrant, career-peak work, at 54, in Jonathan Nossiter’s Signs and Wonders and François Ozon’s Under the Sand, two enigmatic and fascinating films that gift Rampling with the two best roles she’s ever had. Less famed as an actress than as an icy icon, jet-set provocateur, and basilisk glower-puss, Rampling has been mostly exploited for her cool sphinx-ness. But suddenly, time and weathering have given her unexpected depth and resonance, and with the open road the new films give her, she turns out to be one of Europe’s great mature lionesses. (“Some women get really frightened by their own aging. I don’t,” she snarls.) Rampling virtually has Ozon’s whole movie to herself as a woman struggling on multiple levels with the inexplicable disappearance of her husband (Bruno Cremer), and in at least one spellbinding scene (in a morgue), Rampling dares you to read the subtitles and miss a single movement of her eyes.
Are these roles as much of a departure from Rampling’s oeuvre as they seem? “They’re glorious projects, and I’m lucky they were here when I was ready to work again. But they’re the kinds of films I’ve always sought out—films that are highly charged psychologically, with characters that are kind of psychologically damned. I’ve always sought out difficulty; I’ve never done anything the easy way. I never wanted to be a major star or anything.”
What’s interesting is that in both otherwise extremely disparate movies, Rampling plays an utterly ordinary woman abandoned, one way or another, by her menopausal husband. “The two films are related in a way—it’s quite uncanny sometimes, how that happens. But it’s not as if I think of myself as an abandoned woman—you don’t have to have had the experiences of the character, but we’re all so full of memories: Something happens to us, it’s in us. We all hold our memories in, but it’s the actor’s job to pull them up and use them.”
Having survived scores of cheesy movies, years of personal trial, and barely 20 minutes of a phone interview, Rampling refuses to admit that there’s very much notable about her so-called comeback. “I’m not doing a Sunset Boulevard kind of return or anything. I’m back because I can be, and because I didn’t think that I would be back. I’ve got nothing to lose, nothing to hide. I’ll show them everything if that’s what they want to see.”