In Charlotte Rampling: The Look, a hagiographic documentary released in 2011, the iconic actress, then 65, declares: “I was put into movies because I was beautiful.” Extremely self-evident, the observation isn’t a boast; paradoxically, it has a touch of self-deprecation in it. Is Rampling doubting her own talent, insisting that it was only her striking good looks that made us pay attention to her? The IFC Center’s eight-film tribute to the performer gives us the opportunity to marvel at her skills over five decades — roughly the same length of time of the union between Rampling’s Kate and Tom Courtenay’s Geoff in Andrew Haigh’s piercing 45 Years, the recent release of which occasions this series. In that film, Kate’s spouse, recalling their first encounter, lustfully growls, “You were a bloody knockout.” There’s no gainsaying his assessment, only his use of verb tense: Rampling, who turns 70 next month, is always sensational, no matter her age or the vehicle she appears in.
Born to an affluent family in 1946 in Sturmer, England, Rampling modeled briefly before making her first appearance onscreen, as an uncredited wetsuited water-skier in Richard Lester’s wearying mod touchstone The Knack…and How to Get It (1965). The following year saw her breakthrough role in another Swinging London set piece, Silvio Narizzano’s Georgy Girl. “So pretty, cool, and detached,” is how Lynn Redgrave’s plus-size title character admiringly describes her Paddington flatmate, Meredith, an outrageously self-centered violinist whom Rampling, here adorned in a series of fabulous Mary Quant frocks, plays with spiteful, haughty glee. Rarely has a character been so unrepentantly cruel: Rampling’s vain musician compares her kind roomie’s appearance to “the back of a bus” and casually adds, after telling the most steadfast of her lovers (Alan Bates) that she’s pregnant, “I’ve destroyed two of yours already.” She says and does even worse later in the film, her repellent behavior made all the more absorbing by Rampling’s refusal to tamp down even slightly Meredith’s narcissism.
If Georgy Girl reveals the actress reveling in self-regard, Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter (1974) spotlights a facility for self-abasement. I had sworn I’d never revisit this ludicrous Nazi s&m melodrama, in which Rampling, in the role still most indelibly associated with her, plays a concentration camp survivor who, twelve years after the war, resumes her depraved role-playing with the SS officer (Dirk Bogarde) who used to amuse himself by shooting at her at close range. But I was persuaded to return to it after rereading Mary Gaitskill’s terrific recent T magazine profile of the star; in her appraisal of Rampling’s performance in Cavani’s infamous project, the writer singles out how the actress gives “the look of a trapped animal showing a submissive face while it prepares its next move.” After a second viewing, I still think The Night Porter is risible, but Gaitskill’s assessment is sound. Veering from soigné to savage, Rampling brings a feral, frightening intensity to her incoherent character, maintaining an odd kind of dignity amid so much folly. (A year after this succès de scandale, Rampling starred as a fragile, eye-gouging belle in Patrice Chéreau’s baroque thriller The Flesh of the Orchid, which screens January 26 at the French Institute Alliance Française and further showcases the actress at the height of her Euro-decadent glamour.)
Watching Rampling in movies from the first twenty years of her career, you get the sense that her characters were being punished for being too beautiful, especially in the American films, whether studio-backed or independent, included in the IFC retrospective. “She had a full set of curves that nobody had been able to improve upon,” says Robert Mitchum’s Philip Marlowe in voiceover, sizing up Rampling’s femme fatale Helen Grayle as she descends the stairs à la Phyllis Dietrichson in Dick Richards’s noir retread Farewell, My Lovely (1975). Her crimson lips gloriously offset against the blindingly white phone receiver she speaks into, her green eyes burning ever more brightly thanks to the jade necklace she sports, Rampling is a blast to watch in her scant screen time. She’s also, as always, pure pleasure to listen to, her already sexy alto dropped to an even huskier timbre in a Yank accent that is no less alluring for being wildly inconsistent.
The inevitable payback Helen receives for her triple-crossing isn’t as shocking as the slap Rampling’s similarly treacherous (and likewise underutilized) Laura gets from Paul Newman’s desperate, boozy attorney in Sidney Lumet’s The Verdict (1982) — a courtroom drama that peaks when these two first meet in a Boston bar, his baby blues locked on her emerald peepers. Subjected to perhaps even more ignominious treatment than what she endures in The Night Porter, Rampling, as the lithium-taking, mentally unstable actress Dorrie in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980), still manages to imbue this pathetically conceived role with a steely grace.
In a development that belies all received wisdom about actresses and aging, Rampling’s greatest parts wouldn’t come until after she turned 50. In Under the Sand (2000), her career-revitalizing collaboration with François Ozon, she gives an acute performance of grief, playing Marie Drillon, a Paris-based English-lit prof who refuses to acknowledge her husband’s disappearance. Just when it seems that the elegant academic has finally come to terms with the reality of her adored spouse’s departure — a reckoning underscored by the phenomenal scene of the actress, half her face hidden under a surgical mask, conveying horror at an unveiling at the morgue solely through her darting eyes and staggered breathing — she dissembles again. The heroine of Ozon’s film, who chooses to live with a ghost, is something of a precursor to Kate in 45 Years, whose life is upended by the introduction of a phantom into her marriage. Past incarnations of Charlotte Rampling also bewitch, but the actress is at her most seductive in the present.
January 8–March 6