Living Legend: Charlotte Rampling

“I remember my father saying to me once, ‘I finally know how to describe you, Charlotte. You’re prickly.’ And he was right—prickly is a very good description. If I had to be an animal, I’d be a porcupine.” Trying to get one’s arms around this complicated and off-putting, yet simultaneously alluring, talent has challenged writers for decades. Charlotte Rampling has exposed body and soul, literally, in countless nude appearances in film, art, and magazines (notably by Juergen teller in front of the Mona Lisa), and ripped open her heart in her brave recounting of her devastating losses of her sister, and two lovers, and yet remains, by all accounts, and her own, unknowable. Tellingly, her autobiography was entitled Qui Je Suis? or, “Who Am I?”

She told The Guardian, “I can be seen as not being very communicative, or rather mysterious, or distant, or rather cold—all those things. Yeah, I know I can give off that impression. So I am that, too.” Which makes all of us want to know more about this legendary beauty, fashion icon, and groundbreaking actress, and is proof that, at 73, the best is yet to come.

Charlotte was born in 1946, in Sturman, England, to Ann Gurteen Rampling, a manufacturing heiress, and Godfrey Lionel Rampling, an Olympic gold medalist in track, British Army Colonel, and NATO Commander. She grew up with her sister, Sarah, in Gibraltar, Spain and France, and attended Jean d’Arc pour Jeunes Filles en Versailles, then St. Hilda’s in Bushey, England. She and Sarah had a multilingual singing group and, at 14, briefly toured Europe.

Renaud Verleg and Charlotte Rampling in a scene from The Damned in 1969

Shortly after, she was spotted on the street and cast in a Cadbury commercial, followed soon after with a small part in Richard Lester’s The Knack, playing one of the leading man’s fantasies—a water-skier. Interestingly, she was joined by Jane Birkin and Jacqueline Bisset in their first film roles. Charlotte officially joined the “Swinging ’60s.” She told the Telegraph: “Our parents hadn’t lived those kinds of lives at all. I was from a middle-class family, but suddenly, class didn’t matter anymore and we could explore fields that we’d never been able to before. It was a very interesting period for people living in London. At the time, I was very much a part of it.”

“For a few years” she told The Guardian, “there was this wonderful innocence. We had money, we had jobs, people were making a fortune.” She continued swinging and modeling, and had her first speaking role as a furious, pregnant, amoral violinist in Georgy Girl, sharing a flat with Lynn Redgrave. The swinging stopped abruptly with the death of her beloved sister. Sarah made her first trip to America at 21, met an older, wealthy Argentinian cattle rancher, and, in fear of losing him, married him within one week and moved to his ranch. Three years later, in 1966, she delivered a son prematurely, and shot and killed herself. To protect her mother, her father told her it was a brain hemorrhage. Her mother suffered a stroke, even at the diluted news, and the truth was never revealed until after her death in 2001.

Charlotte Rampling photographed by Helmut Newton in 1973.

“My sister’s death really pulled me up,” Charlotte told The Telegraph. “How can you go on being frivolous after a death in your family. That’s why, from that moment on, I went deep down. Searching for the whys and wherefores of a life, rather than wanting to be in films or entertainment, or just having fun, or for just looking for a party and being a dolly bird.” She sagely told The Guardian, “We were all searching… trying to use alcohol or drugs, I said, ‘That’s going to completely send me out of my head, where as I have to remain in my body and head.’” Charlotte sought spiritual solace, sold her London home, and traveled to the Middle East, Afghanistan, studied Oriental religion, and entered a Tibetan monastery.

She returned as the Charlotte Rampling we know better—introspective, mysterious, unknowable by design it would seem —a form of shield, only lifted as desired.

Her career was revived in Visconti’s The Damned, her first foray into a Nazi-driven story, co-starring for the first time with Dirk Bogarde. The Damned was followed by her most controversial role, as the concentration camp survivor who develops a sado-maschocistic relationship with her S.S. guard, again played by Dirk Bogarde. He told The Telegraph, “Once you experience her, you never forget,” and dubbed her trademark, “The look.” While memorable, it was considered a perversely sensual role. Nona Sayres of The New York Times, said, “If you don’t like pain, you won’t find The Night Porter erotic.” Charlotte told The Guardian, “I was seeking protection in dangerous roles. I think the danger is within me. It’s always provocation, or daring or wanting to ignite things or wanting to make things live—not just to repeat, scenes.” Esteemed author Mary Gaitskill took a gentler stance on her role in The New York Times: “It was the joining of the beautiful and the cruelty—the communication between ungiving power and the soft, dumb, knowledge of the body.”

Rampling married to her first husband, New Zealander Brian Southcombe, a publicist, in 1972, and had a son, Barnaby (now a TV director), with him. By 1975, the marriage was unraveling with suggestions of a ménage a trois with model Randall Laurence. She told columnist Earl Wilson, “There are so many misunderstandings in life. I once caused a scandal by saying I was living with two men. I didn’t mean it in a sexual sense, I was just too dirty to clean my act up.” The marriage ended in 1976, and was followed immediately (simultaneously, it has been suggested) by a relationship and marriage, in 1978, to French composer, Jean-Michel Jarre, whom she met at a party in St. Tropez. They had a son, David, together, and Charlotte raised Jarre’s daughter, Emilie, in the two decades that they were together.

Charlotte Rampling in 1974

Fashion followed Charlotte, a seemingly effortless icon. She has been draped, photographed, and adored by Yves St. Laurent, Helmut Newton, and scores of others, and has graced red carpets in everything from Loft to Hermès and all in between. Charlotte once stated, “Fashion is not trivial… fashion is about us—how we look and present ourselves…You can dress up to be quite glorious creatures—it’s all a very important part of life,” Lynn Yaeger wrote in Vogue: “If you had a Euro for every vintage snap of her gracing an inspiration board, you could buy a year’s worth of Galoises. For not only has Rampling made Le Smoking her iconic ensemble, she is also seen airily waving her cigarette in many of her earlier photographs. Inhaling or not (and we hope you quit, CR!), she is a model of elegant, erotic androgyny—the reason God created women in pants.” In another Vogue interview, she was asked if fashion played a role in her childhood, to which she replied, “Yes, very much through my mother. She was a beautiful woman. She loved clothes and my sister did, too. I’ve got a good body and I’m photogenic, but I’m not into wearing clothes in the same way they were.” Does she see herself as an icon, then? they asked. “Yes, but I suppose that’s because I know what I look good in and I know the kind of person I want to be through the clothes, which is not really fashion-fashion, but I know the look. It’s like with words. I know what suits me. Hearing the word ‘icon’ is always very pleasing because that means I have got it!”

In the ’80s she starred in Max Mon Amour, as a diplomat’s wife, in love with a chimp (an idea that has surprising resonance among my friends), Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (he called her “the perfect woman”), and The Verdict (as the alcoholic woman Paul Newman should not have fallen in love with), and Spy Games (“I did that movie so I could kiss Robert Redford”).

The ’90s saw Charlotte slip into a depression and out of the camera’s sight. She told The Guardian, “It’s the reverse of you, the depression. You start from zero, because you’re just dead to the world…your desire for anything, everything, goes. You’ve got to build yourself up again.”

Jean Michel and Charlotte Rampling in 1975

And build herself up again she needed to do. After learning, from a tabloid, that her husband, Jean-Michel, was having multiple affairs, she suffered a full-on nervous breakdown. The silver lining is that that seems to have been the last straw, and up from the ashes she soon rose.

The director Francois Ozon is credited with her triumphant return to cinema, first in Under the Sand, then, in 2003, in The Swimming Pool, where she got her mojo back, was praised for her acting, and lost her skivvies, like the good old days. She even played a character, Sarah Morton, in tribute to her sister, acknowledging her passing in a way she hadn’t before and signaling her re-emergence. The Telegraph’s John Hissock wrote, “At 57, Charlotte Rampling has not lost the ability to shock.” She told him, “I don’t mind nudity. I’ve never really been shy of that. It’s a form of expression and it depends on how I want to go with that expression. In the swimming pool scenes, I said to Francois, ‘Hey, I think it would be really ugly to show me bouncing around, because Ludivine [her co-star] is going to be doing a lot of that and she has a lovely, sexy, young body. And even though I have a reasonable body, I don’t think it’s going to be that interesting for spectators. I said, you can do everything, but I will not move.”

Charlotte Rampling in 1976

The dark tides had turned for Charlotte…almost. Her career came back at a steady beat. She met Jean Noël Tassez, a French telecommunications executive and journalist, and was engaged to him from 1998 until his death in 2015. Her health and career remained strong, though, and age was not an issue: She told The Hollywood Reporter: “You become more and more charged with your life and a life that you’re observing. When I was younger, I was actually looking forward to growing older, to have more insight, more understanding. I’m much more tolerant with others and myself. I’m not angry so much.” She appeared in Broadchurch with Olivia Coleman, to whom she would soon lose the Oscar, gracefully. She told The Guardian, “Boy, does she deserve it, she’s the real deal.” She had a regular role in Showtime’s Dexter and holed up in the Chateau Marmont, as it was the closest thing to Europe in Hollywood, not her favorite city. She was happier to film Red Sparrow with Jennifer Lawrence, in Budapest, then joined her, Viola, Cate, Lupita, Brie, Helen, and an impressive collection of the most important actresses of the day on the cover of Vanity Fair’s 2016 Hollywood edition. Her most-awarded performance was in Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, an emotional tour de force that showed how very old romances change lives…45 years later. She was nominated for an Oscar, and for a Cesar, The Volpe Cup (for Hannah), The French Legion of Honor and The Lifetime Achievement Award from The European Film Awards.

Rampling in The Look in 2011

It seems that Lifetime Award may have been premature. She is now filming a “secret” Danish TV series—“a different, really chilling story. You know I need the thrill of difference,” she told The Guardian, Benedetta, an erotic bio-pic set in a convent (yes, you continue to startle us, Charlotte), and the adaptation of Dune with Timothée Chalamet, in which she will play the Reverend Mother Mohiam, whom The Hollywood Reporter says is “the Emperor’s truthsayer, a person who can suss out lies and manipulate people’s emotional states.” Would we expect anything less?