This year, the Marrakech Film Festival, with the highest-profile jury it has ever boasted and a Scandinavian tribute that brought some of the most exciting international filmmakers to town too, was heaving with ingenues and rising stars. But one of the pleasures of this festival has always been the opportunity it affords to get to meet with some of the more established, classic actors of our time—last year we enjoyed a riotous interview with Terence Stamp, for example—and this year was no exception as we got to sit down with Charlotte Rampling, whose fascinating and unique presence has been gracing our screens since the mid-sixties.
In fact, in the early part of her career, Rampling’s almost unearthly beauty, and the wildly unconventional life she lived offscreen (drug use, menages a trois, personal tragedies) kind of defined an era, while her daring and transgressive arthouse roles (in Visconti‘s account of deviance and moral decline under the Third Reich “The Damned“; then as a camp survivor who falls in love with her Nazi captor in “The Night Porter“; right up to having an affair with a chimpanzee in “Max Mon Amour“) marked her out as an actress of singular bravery and curiosity. We should probably confess at this point that an accidental childhood viewing of that last film, especially the scene where the irate husband throws back the bedsheet to discover the chimp there while Rampling stares at him unapologetically, kind of broke this writer’s brain a little bit, never to wholly recover. Indeed, there’s such an icy, almost insolent intelligence at work in a lot of Rampling’s performances that we were a little trepidatious going in to meet her. But in person, Rampling is warm, articulate, funny and immensely easy to talk to, and so we left with a different kind of crush on her than we had going in.
Recently you were working with Guy Maddin on an ongoing portmanteau-style film, can you tell us about that?
Oh, “Spiritismes“? I’m not sure if, or how, that is coming out, I think it’s maybe meant to be an internet release or something. I believe he did it over a few countries, we did ours in Paris in the Pompidou art gallery. It’s a series of recreations of films that have been lost—old films—and we reenacted parts of them, reinvented them, these old, abandoned or lost films.
What film did you reenact?
We did “Therese Raquin,” with 5 characters in it, and when we filmed it you could watch us being filmed. In the Pompidou there’s a large exhibition space, so from above people could look down on us filming, so it was a theatrical experience too. [Maddin] did it right after “Keyhole,” but I’d kind of forgotten about it, so it’s good of you to remind us! It was never destined to be a film it was always going to be an internet thing, something…strange—a ‘project’.
And was that indefinability something that attracted to you to it?
Yes, like that, I do a lot of projects with visual artists too, photographers and video artists. It’s a question of what you want to join yourself to. I have an inner choreography, in a way, that’s not always about acting, it’s more to do with wanting to join up with a project or a person. Like “Spiritismes” or I’ve just done something with a visual artist in New York, called “Cutaways.” I did “Vanishing Point” years ago and had been cut out, and she’s using 3 people who had been cut out of films and she’s blending them into an artwork. [As an aside, the artist is Agnieska Kurant, who collaborated with legendary editor Walter Murch on the project and the other two actors are Abe Vigoda and Dick Miller, cut from “The Conversation” and “Pulp Fiction” respectively. Sounds like a terrific concept.]
So things like that interest me and it’s the same with film, it’s got to be something I feel I can have a relationship with, not in an acting way, more in a being way, it’s got to be somehow linked in an organic way to myself.
I wonder if part of that link is a certain moral ambivalence that many of your film roles share. Is that what you look for or is that what you bring to a role?
A little bit of the two, but the potential must be there, to have that ambivalence. To not really know… all that needs to be blurred, because there’s something I find fascinating about that, it’s the way I am, so I want to investigate. So I pick out roles, that are often quite small but they allow me to experiment with this way of being.
…that ambivalence always leaves a sort of question mark, it’s an infiltration thing. It’s how in real life you can infiltrate societies and into cultures in a way where you can be a stranger and not be a part of it, so you can have the luxury of distance to absorb it. I’ve actually lived as a foreigner most of my life anyway, it suits me fine. As a foreigner you don’t have the rules about family, culture, society etc. Yet I’m completely English, I can’t get away from that I’ve brought things into me but I can’t lose my Englishness, but living away from it was great for me. I’ve always wanted to be a traveler, physically and mentally, and cinema was able to give me a lot of that.
And certainly in your career you’ve worked across various national cinemas. Do you see differences or changes in the respective national industries?
I don’t see a huge difference, English cinema has been more or less the same for a long time, it’s always been quite small and with not much money. [French cinema] well, they make far too many movies—they make 250 films a year which is far too much, and they can’t afford it. They aren’t bad films, often quite nice little comedies that will get a TV run, but they’re not necessarily spectacular. It means you get a lot of young filmmakers, for instance in the [French Oscar] Cesar box [of For Your Consideration films] maybe 40% of these are first films. So it’s an awful lot of money spent on first-time directors.
How about the impact that TV has had on cinema—you were a series regular on “Dexter” for example.
Well it’s all about the series. These series’ are great, the studios in Hollywood where I made “Dexter” are now only making series. All the blockbuster stuff is too expensive to do in LA now, and all the studios are just full of TV series and the best writing is happening there too. And people love it. People love following these characters, they love these ongoing stories. The studios recognize this so they’re spending money on it, it’s where the talent is and where the audience is.
Does that sadden you?
No, not really. There will always be films and these days I tend to work mostly on low budget films, so it doesn’t make much difference as the films I like to do will still exist. I think the middle budget films will be the ones to suffer, and the big blockbusters will still exist.
You took on some immensely challenging, transgressive roles in your early career. Do you still find that kind of role available to you?
Well, for the last three years or so they’ve been there but mostly for smaller parts, maybe in “Melancholia” or in the Todd Solondz [film, “Life During Wartime“]. And now I’ve just received recently three roles, all as a woman my age confronting issues. Quite often seen from the point of view of a younger person, but the older point of view being the point of view of the film and these are being directed by people in their early 40s. It’s really interesting, they are quite socially and emotionally engaged films. These are future projects and I can’t tell you much more but they are going into really interesting places and feature older female leads. One character is [older than me] in her 70s! So it feels different—these younger people now want to know what it’s like to be older and that hasn’t happened before.
One of the people making the films is a young English man, he will be telling a very intimate story of a couple and something happens at the beginning of the story that changes the whole axis of their lives and you start to investigate their lives. So if a young person wants to do [a story like] that! Much like [Rampling’s frequent director] Francois Ozon when he did “Sous le Sable,” I was 55 and he was 32 years old and he just wanted to know what it was like to be a woman of my age. So I think it’s the same thing happening here, a young director writes a script because he wants to know what is going on when you are older.
Do you work closely in collaboration with your directors, do you go through scripts with them and change things?
It can be a collaboration, it just depends on how important what you feel you want is. And very often it’s not very important. I think sometimes that’s about control and I prefer to work without control.
And how do you feel about the small controversy that Ozon stirred up recently over “Jeune et Jolie” when he suggested that many women fantasize about becoming prostitutes?
Oh that! Silly boy. Things just slip out much like Lars Von Trier. Things slip out and they really don’t mean anything at all.