For days I could watch Charlotte Rampling just speak in an empty room, looking at photographs of herself and being bitchy in flawless French to a documentary’s off-camera crew. And that’s precisely what she does in Angelina Maccarone’s gorgeous Charlotte Rampling: The Look. Divided into thematic chapters such as “exposure,” “age,” “beauty,” and “demons,” the film captures Rampling’s cerebral soliloquies and musings, interspersing clips from her various roles, from The Night Porter to Swimming Pool (sadly, no Basic Instinct 2). Sometimes she’s alone and addresses the camera directly. At other moments she bounces her contemplations off of a friend, like writer Paul Auster, photographer Peter Lindbergh, and her actor son Barnaby Southcombe. Her own look basks in the look of the other, like a droopy-eyed and wounded Medusa whose demands you can never escape, and who’s too conscious of the world around her to ever offer it any kindness.
There’s something of Pedro Costa’s Ne Change Rien here, even if Costa’s muse in that film, French singer Jeanne Balibar, seemed completely oblivious, perhaps contemptuous, to the camera. Rampling is very much aware of the camera’s every intention and possibility. Perhaps too aware, like the kind of over-educated narcissist for whom real spontaneity is too costly a risk. There’s an illusion of a complete lack of vulnerability in Rampling’s face, yet somehow one that feels built on vulnerability itself. We learn her sister committed suicide at a very young age, and that Rampling would rather be thought of as a monster than as “nice.” Her gravitas is as mesmerizing as ever: a diva with a PhD? She’s the kind of star America is incapable of producing, apart from a nostalgia-tinged fantasy of Madonna—at once object and agent, muse and auteur. Rampling exudes the sense of mastery that perhaps a Tilda Swinton could claim—the boundless woman just as comfortable animating a Swarovski-encrusted Dior gown on a catwalk or chairing a Michel Foucault conference panel. How can we ever stop looking?
Yet this kind of force—visually stunning and philosophically astute—that Rampling inspires cannot sustain itself throughout the entirety of Charlotte Rampling: The Look. And it’s this failure that makes the film so fascinating, its ability to evoke that which it probably never accounted for (apart from Rampling’s admission that “There is an animal excitement about confronting situations where you have no idea what the outcome will be”): The star cannot survive too close a close-up. Although she knows that “there are no secrets anymore,” Rampling is careful not to lose her mystery, but in taking on so many profound subjects as some kind of celestial expert, it becomes clear why a star is granted written lines and a stage, not a podium. Rampling’s speech on loaded terms such as “desire,” “love,” and “taboo” exposes so many theoretical inconsistencies and equivocations, the gap between the masterful delivery of the diva and the substance behind it become delightfully apparent; she’s alive at last, even naïve. The same woman who says, “The best thing about pain is to let it happen to you, it’s the resistance that makes it painful,” seems keen on the notion that there’s just one real love, and that sexuality may die, just not sensuality. Yet it’s in the way Rampling, whose goal in life is “not to suffer,” uses the word “erotic” so recklessly and is so comfortable in crafting gutsy generalizations (“Beauty can’t be kept as it is, nothing can be kept as it is”) that allows the film to be something other than an homage. In a kind of lenticular outcome, The Look seduces us simultaneously with Rampling’s irresistible projected image (the cheekbones, the poise, the treacherous greyness of the eyes) and her ordinarily human incompleteness.