SIGNS & WONDERS directed by Jonathan Nossiter, written by Nossiter and James Lasdun, produced by Marin Karmitz, with Stellan Skarsgrd, Charlotte Rampling, Deborah Unger, Dimitri Katalifos. A Mongrel Media release. 104 minutes. Opens Friday (March 9). For venues and times, see First-Run Movies, page 81. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNNN
charlotte rampling directs a broad smile at me and the photographer, but it doesn't help. In this instant, she's geometry.
All I see are the celebrated planes of her face and her body -- abstracted by Woody Allen in Stardust Memories, and in that famous dance scene from The Night Porter where she's trisected by a pair of suspenders and nothing else.
This is what it means to be an icon.
She orders a coffee, "cream, no sugar," and becomes more normal, or at least more familiar. This is what stars do -- order coffee in hotel rooms in the flurry of the Toronto International Film Festival, and receive precisely what they want. It's a comforting action, for both of us.
But it's strange to see Rampling at all. Twenty-five years ago, she was the English face of remorseless art films. But after she married musician Jean Michel Jarre and set up house with three kids in a 14-bedroom Versailles mansion, the roles got smaller and sometimes harder to figure. I'm sure Rampling had good reasons for acting in The Ski Bum and Orca: The Killer Whale, but today's not the day I ask.
Now, out of the blue, she's touring to promote three films, including Jonathan Nossiter's impressive Signs & Wonders, a love story every bit as piercing and elusive as Rampling herself.
So where's she been lately?
"I'd done little pieces in Europe," she says, "and I'd done The Wings Of The Dove and a small part in Great Expectations."
She sips her coffee. "But I'd been quite quiet. Getting on with the terrors of living."
She breaks into a huge, strange laugh. I'm rattled.
But then again, Rampling's great genius, onscreen and in person, is to unsettle. Beauty aside, she's all brains and elbows.
It's a quality she can still use to devastating effect. In Signs & Wonders she returns to the husband who betrayed her (Stellan Skarsgrd) and seduces him with a composure that's positively animal.
Rampling has survived her own husband's betrayal -- and a much-publicized breakdown afterward -- but her enthusiasm for Signs & Wonders comes from the film's director.
"Jonathan is so much the film," she raves. "He's intensely passionate about everything. There's a courage there that I really loved. He's uncompromising."
Nossiter, like Rampling, is a traveller. He's an American raised in Europe, with a degree in ancient Greek and something no other filmmaker on the planet has -- two awards of excellence from Wine Spectator magazine.
"He's a sommelier!" Rampling laughs, "which is also delightful in your choice of directors, isn't it?"
Nossiter's wine lists for tony New York boites like Balthazar and Il Buco win him acclaim on the quaffing circuit. His last film, Sunday, won the top prize at Sundance.
He enjoys what he's called these "strange intersections of pleasure," a phrase that also fits Rampling's body of work.
But as much as she enjoys working, Rampling takes no pleasure in watching her films.
"I'm quite frankly embarrassed watching myself," she says quickly, "-- I mean deeply embarrassed, by everything I do."
This is way beyond false modesty. I'm surprised by her confession and I blurt out, "Why?"
"I don't know," she says. "I cringe."
And yet, "I think because it's the thing I fear most it's the thing I do best. I think fear, if it doesn't get too neurotic and out of control, is the motivator in our lives. And the thing I've always feared the most is being looked at."
Rampling worked on that fear in psychoanalysis, "and it's still there, but it's controllable."
Part of the price of being looked at is that the public gaze knows no boundaries. Rampling's dissolving marriage fed gossip in both Britain and France. When she had a nervous breakdown in 1991, it made the papers. The more she reacts to that public gaze, the stronger it gets. This is what it means to be an icon, especially an icon of beauty.
Rampling admits she's not always at home with her looks.
"It's very ambivalent," she begins, "because it's, it's something it's something you haven't earned, you've just got it.
"And it's something that allows you immense power. You can enter anywhere and you're immediately wanted, looked at, taken, dated, everything. You have great potential when you're very young and very beautiful. And instinctively, at a young age -- and quite violent things happened to me at a young age, too, which stopped me in my tracks -- I instinctively felt that it was a terrifying double-edged sword.
"Now I'm getting older," she continues, "and my so-called beauty will modify and be different. Then, when I look back at how I was when I was young, maybe I can enjoy it. It's sort of sad, isn't it?"
That same night at the film festival, I see Charlotte Rampling in a crowded restaurant. She stands, caught in the orbit of her handlers, like a woman drugged. She's a line drawing, a theory.
She looks through us all, and slowly she walks out over the crowd. She's a marvel. She is 55.
1999 Great Expectations In this BBC Dickens, Rampling radically reconceived Miss Havisham, the abandoned bride who wears her wedding dress for 30 years. Her Havisham is an older woman with an undiminished libido. "Really quite sexy," Rampling says, "with this unbelievable hairstyle and this sort of ravaged face. Obviously, it was going to look really weird. But if that's what she's feeling, then it can work." She adds, "I feel as sexy as I did at 20 and at 30 and at 40. That doesn't change."
1986 1986 Max, Mon Amour Rampling plays a Parisian wife who takes a chimpanzee as her lover, then carries on normally while her husband and friends react in horror. Directed by Nagisa Oshima (Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence) as either an allegory or an elaborate, not especially funny, joke.
1980 1980 Stardust Memories Woody Allen said he cast Rampling because she "reeks from neurosis." That must have made her perfect for this film, Allen's most paranoid fantasy until Deconstructing Harry. The sequence in which Rampling breaks down in a series of jump-cut close-ups is a tour-de-force for both director and star. Maybe that's why Allen once announced that his ideal dinner party would include Rampling and Franz Kafka.
1974 1974 The Night Porter Liliana Cavani's film has Rampling and Dirk Bogarde as lovers who meet 13 years after he terrorized and seduced her in a Nazi concentration camp. The film is far more nuanced than sounds possible, but it sparked a regrettable new genre: soft-core Nazi erotica.
1966 1966 Georgy Girl Lynn Redgrave played the plain-Jane heroine, but Rampling was the bitch-zingy roommate Redgrave yearned to be. This was the first of Rampling's gallery of doomed neurotics. She was dressed here by Mary Quant in a look that came to define swinging London.
1965 1965 The Knack, And How To Get It Richard Lester's laddish comedy later inspired that one-hit new wave band. It's also the movie where Rampling, Jacqueline Bisset and Marlo Thomas all took debut cameo roles as eye candy.