Charlotte Rampling was breathtakingly beautiful as a young woman. She is now 66, still gorgeous, and vexingly still wears same dress size, still appears in bathing suits on screen. Angelina Maccarone’s documentary explores a woman who has let us look at her onscreen for nearly 50 years.

She has never made it easy, specializing in difficult, hard characters with complicated motives. The bitch in Georgy Girl (1966), the wife who falls in love with a chimpanzee in Max (1986), or — most infamously — the concentration camp survivor who carries on a strange relationship with a Nazi guard in The Night Porter (1974); all these parts made her inscrutable, kept us from liking her. Famously, her co-star Dirk Bogarde called it “The Look”: those distinctive, hooded eyes that achieve so much without giving much away. As she’s grown older and her face acquired more character, she has acquired a capacity to convey not just disdain but a degree of self-loathing so all-encompassing that it chills.

What we see of Rampling onscreen is a mystery of minimalist emotion that nevertheless somehow smacks you in the face. About her role in the new film, The Eye of the Storm (2012), David Denby writes, “Speaking in not much more than a whisper, [Rampling] is magnetically evil, with occasional flashes of a complex sensibility and poetic invention — often just a flutter of her eyes or a strategic turn of her head.” How does she do that?

 

In Charlotte Rampling: The Look she explains that early on she learned she was exceptionally photogenic; yet she had to learn how to survive the constant appearance of the camera before her. “Exposure is huge,” she explains. “You have to find a way not to feel invaded all the time, by lenses, by people looking all the time. If you are to give anything worthwhile of yourself, you have to feel completely exposed.”

Perversely, Maccarone’s documentary begs you to read in between the lines. It does not seek exposure but something more allusive, abstract — the passing of time, the inevitability of change. She shows Rampling in conversation with old friends and collaborators, conversations that allow Maccarone to trace those earlier appearances on screen and in photographs. At times, Rampling even revisits old sets like a staircase she rambled down in Georgy Girl or a room where she danced, bare breasted, to a Marlene Dietrich tune in The Night Porter.

 

Maccarone never asks how Rampling feels about her sister’s suicide back in the 60s, nor about her relationships with men, nor whether she is close to her children. In avoiding those gossipy realms so stereotypical of “women’s lives” as produced by Hollywood, the director clearly wants to make a point about respecting the actor’s craft, her career. This is a film about Rampling’s achievements, one of which is the flowering of her ability to play ambivalent, morally questionable, and occasionally impossible characters like Sarah Morton, above, in François Ozon’s terrific Swimming Pool (2003).

And yet I completed the documentary still feeling that the director hadn’t done justice to Rampling’s skills; I think I wanted a more explicit directorial hand in showing us, as Denby did in that great quote above, what Rampling can do with her face. But Maccarone stays out of it, allowing us to arrive at our own conclusions. Perhaps rather than see this documentary one ought to see Under the Sand (2000) or even her small, despicable part in Melancholia (2011) instead. And yet for the unadulterated pleasure of seeing La Rampling, well, it’s streaming on Netflix.

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