In France, she’s known as La Légende. Co-star Dirk Bogarde dubbed her penetrating gaze “the look.” Film critic Barry Norman created a new verb in her honor, “to rample,” which means “an ability to reduce a man to helplessness through a chilly sensuality.”
At 65, Charlotte Rampling is still one of cinema’s great iconoclasts, recently appearing in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia. It’s hardly surprising that the new documentary Charlotte Rampling: The Look isn’t a conventional biography. Director Angelina Maccarone calls it a “self-portrait through others,” explaining that she wanted to explore Rampling’s life “according to content instead of chronology.” If you’re looking for tearful revelations about her personal life, you won’t find them here. The Look gives us a glimpse at candid conversations between Rampling and her collaborators and friends. Each section is guided by a heady concept, such as “beauty,” “death,” and “desire,” and is intercut with clips from her most famous films.
In the first and most potent section of the film, “Exposure,” the still-ravishing Rampling, her heavy-lidded eyes untouched by a surgeon’s knife, discusses a life spent in front of the camera with her friend, photographer Peter Linbergh. Rampling’s observations are unusually self-aware and intelligent, but the woman who shocked audiences in films like The Damned and Max Mon Amour is at her most engaging when stirring up trouble.
“Have you ever been in front of the camera?” she asks Lindbergh in that marvelously dusky voice of hers. Moments later, the photographer is up against a wall, nervously squirming under the camera’s gaze while Rampling zooms in. “Don’t think. Don’t speak. Be,” she commands, snapping a picture.
Another section, “Taboo,” is a discussion with photographer Juergen Teller on the public outcry following the release of The Night Porter, the story of a sadomasochistic love affair between a concentration camp survivor (Rampling) and her former Nazi tormentor (Bogarde). “If you want to do a story like this, it isn’t going to be flowers and roses and smell nice afterwards. People are going to get upset,” she says matter-of-factly. “You learn to barricade yourself quickly, as I knew I would go on doing quite controversial roles. These are the sort of roles that make sense to me…if I couldn’t make these films I wouldn’t carry on in cinema.”
The real taboo in Rampling’s life was not an acting role, but the suicide of her sister. Her family never allowed her to discuss the tragic event and she didn’t process it until many years later. It’s a revealing moment, and unique in that it’s one of the few times Rampling discusses her personal life in the film.
Maccarone’s light touch gives The Look an intimate feeling, but prevents it from achieving greatness. Although Rampling claims, “If you’re going to give anything worthwhile of yourself, you have to feel completely exposed,” she never moves outside of her comfort zone. Without friction, the film has few revelations of lasting power.
Despite its shortcomings, though, The Look is as close as most of us will ever get to having tea with La Légende. It may not be revelatory, but it’s one of the best conversations I’ve had at the movies all year.
DOC NYC runs from November 2—10. For more information, click here.