“Charlotte is addictive. Once experienced, she is impossible to forget.”
– Dirk Bogarde on Charlotte Rampling
The quintessential Francophile. Alluring and elusive. She made her name playing good/bad girls in high-profile features and European art-house cinema. With a smouldering sexuality and an independent spirit, she boldly appeared in productions that were ahead of their time. Beautiful, sensual and intelligent.
Her name is Charlotte Rampling.
Tessa Charlotte Rampling was born on February 5, 1946, in Sturmer, Essex, to Godfrey and Isabel Anne Rampling. Her father was an Olympic gold medallist and Army officer, and her mother was a painter. She had an older sister named Sarah, to whom she was close. “(My dad) being in the Army, we only lived two years everywhere. Army brat, movie brat, same sort of lifestyle,” she told the Telegraph.
She spent much of her childhood in Gibraltar, France and Spain, before returning to the UK in 1964. Charlotte attended a total of five schools, including Académie Jeanne d’Arc in Versailles and a prestigious boarding school called St. Hilda’s School in Bushey, Hertfordshire.
Rampling began her career as a model and appeared in a Cadbury’s commercial. She was noticed by a casting agent walking down a street in London and was cast (uncredited) as a waterskier in The Knack … and How to Get It. She also appeared as an extra in A Hard Day’s Night (1964). But it was as the cold-hearted Meredith, opposite Lynne Redgrave and James Mason, in Georgy Girl (1965) that she really made her mark. She appeared in Rotten to the Core (1965), opposite Yul Brynner, in The Long Duel (1967) and as the gunfighter Hana Wilde in an episode of The Avengers in 1967, called The Superlative Seven.
Rampling starred in Sardinia Kidnapped (1968) with Franco Nero and, in 1969, she appeared in Luchino Visconti’s Italian art-house The Damned, opposite Dirk Bogarde. Bogarde became an intimate friend and something of a mentor to the actress. She starred naked in the cult classic Vanishing Point (1971) and beside Sam Waterston in Three, and in 1972 she appeared in Corky with Robert Blake. Charlotte made a fetching Anne Boleyn in Henry VIII and His Six Wives (1972) opposite Keith Michell, and in Asylum (1972) with Brit Ekland.
“Right from the beginning, when I started, I knew that this was probably the way I was going to go for the rest of my life, because I knew that something happened,” she says. “It was just as if I was made for this. I was so at home, so at ease. I knew that I had something that worked for me.”
Rampling chose bold roles that were ahead of their time. She appeared opposite Oliver Tobias in ‘Tis A Pity She’s A Whore (1971) playing a character who has an incestuous relationship with her brother, by whom she has a baby. In 1974, she was reunited with Dirk Bogarde in Liliana Cavani’s provocative erotic psychological drama, The Night Porter. Rampling played a concentration camp survivor who is reunited with the Nazi officer who tortured her.
That year, she also starred in John Boorman’s science-fiction production Zardoz, opposite Sean Connery. She appeared in Farewell My Lovely (1975) with Robert Mitchum, Foxtrot with Peter O’Toole (1976) and the thriller Orca (1976), opposite Richard Harris. In 1980, Charlotte starred in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories and in Sidney Lumet’s acclaimed courtroom drama The Verdict (1982), opposite Paul Newman.
Off-screen, Allen described Rampling as “the ideal woman”. In 1984, she starred in Viva la vie and in 1986, Charlotte appeared opposite a chimpanzee in the cult-film Max Mon Amour. Asked if it was hard acting with the creature, Rampling replied: “No, it was just like acting with Paul Newman, except the chimpanzee behaved a little differently.”
Rampling starred in the dark thriller Angel Heart (1987) with Mickey Rourke and Paris by Night (1988). She then kept a low profile until 1997, when she appeared in The Wings of the Dove and a UK BBC television adaptation of Great Expectations (1998), as Miss Havisham. In 1999, she appeared in the Michael Cacoyannis production of The Cherry Orchard.
Charlotte Rampling was undeniably beautiful, with a palpable sensuality. She was inscrutable. She was tall and willowy, with striking looks and a depth that suggested an inner world from which she drew on. It was Luchino Visconti who termed her cool, sultry gaze The Look. ‘I have seen The Look under many different circumstances,’ Dirk Bogarde wrote of Rampling. ‘The glowing emerald eyes turn to steel within a second, (then) fade gently to the softest, tenderest, most doe-eyed bracken-brown.’
Her private life would be tabloid fodder, but she always maintained a dignified silence. “I think the happiest time of my life was when I was in my late teens. I was a little bit of an ‘it’ girl. It was a wonderful time to be young.”
It was widely reported that she was living in a ménage à trois with two other men: actor and publicist Bryan Southcombe and Randall Laurence, a model from New Zealand. “There are so many misunderstandings in life. I once caused a scandal by saying I lived with two men (…) I didn’t mean it in a sexual sense (…) I was just too dirty to clean my act up,” Rampling told columnist Earl Wilson.
They divorced in 1976, after Charlotte met the French composer Jean-Michel Jarre at a dinner party in St Tropez. Both their marriages were on the rocks. “Michel was magnetic,” Charlotte recalled (The Independent). They married and had a son, David Jarre, born in 1977. “I learned very early on that Charlotte is not a chatterbox,” Jarre told The Independent. Rampling raised her stepdaughter, fashion designer Émilie Jarre, as her own. The couple were together for 20 years, but the marriage ended acrimoniously in 1997, amidst allegations of Jarre’s affairs with other women. Rampling was engaged to French journalist and businessman Jean-Noël Tassez from 1998 until his death in 2015 from cancer.
But Charlotte was already experiencing her own dark night of the soul. She was 20 years old when her 23-year-old sister Sarah committed suicide. This would have repercussions throughout her life. For the next 35 years, she maintained the fiction that her sister had died from a brain haemorrhage, to spare her mother from ever discovering that her daughter had committed suicide. Isabel Anne Rampling had suffered a stroke soon after her loss and lost the power of speech.
Rampling struggled to cope with the loss of her sister. “I could have carried on in comedy. But my life was dark. I wasn’t going to be jumping around doing futile entertainment. I had to do something with some kind of substance and value, so I could at least say to myself I was serving my dead sister in a way,” she told the Telegraph Charlotte was first treated for depression in 1984, and seven years later suffered a nervous breakdown. “I couldn’t cope with having to cope. That’s what depression is. You lose it. Literally. Everything stops,” she later recalled.
A quiet period ended with Charlotte’s re-emergence in 2000, after she won international acclaim in Francois Ozon’s Under the Sand. She credited Ozon for bringing her back and went on to appear in Tony Scott’s Spy Game (2001). Charlotte earned César Award nominations for Francois Ozon’s Under the Sand (2000), Swimming Pool (2003) and Lemming (2005). The character she played in Ozon’s Swimming Pool (2003) was named in honour of her sister. In 2005, Rampling appeared in Laurent Cantet’s Heading South (Vers le Sud), Basic Instinct 2 (2006), The Duchess (2008), portraying Countess Spencer opposite Keira Knightley, and as the High Priestess in Babylon AD (2008).
She starred in Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime (2009), as Miss Emily in Never Let Me Go (2010), StreetDance 3D (2010) and opposite Michael York in The Mill and the Cross as a nun. In 2011, Charlotte appeared in Lars Von Trier’s controversial Melancholia. She was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award and a Screen Actors Guild Award for her role in the 2012 UK BBC mini-series Restless. In 2013, she appeared in the final season of Dexter as Dr. Evelyn Vogel, and Francois Ozon’s Jeune et Jolie (2013) and Night Train to Lisbon (2013), opposite Jeremy Irons. In 2015, Charlotte appeared in the UK ITV drama Broadchurch and the BBC drama London Spy (2015). In 2015, she appeared opposite Tom Courtenay in Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, then in The Sense of an Ending with Emily Mortimer (2017), Hannah (2017) and the spy thriller Red Sparrow (2018), opposite Jennifer Lawrence.
“I generally don’t make films to entertain people,” Rampling said. “I choose the parts that challenge me to break through my own barriers. A need to devour, punish, humiliate, or surrender seems to be a primal part of human nature, and it’s certainly a big part of sex. To discover what normal means, you have to surf a tide of weirdness.”
Charlotte was receiving accolades and validation from all quarters. In 2000, she was awarded an OBE. She received an Honorary César in 2001 and became a Dame of France’s Legion d’Honour in 2002. Rampling was then nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award and a Screen Actors Guild Award in 2012, for the TV mini-series Restless. She won the Silver Bear for Best Actress and Tom Courtenay won the Silver Bear for Best Actor for 45 Years (2015), in which the both starred. For this role, she also won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Award for Best Actress and the European Film Award for Best Actress.
In 2017, Charlotte was awarded the Volpi Cup for Best Actress award at the 74th Venice International Film Festival for Hannah (2017). Charlotte had lost none of her allure. In 2014, she was named the new face of NARS Cosmetics to launch their new lipstick campaign. She had posed nude for Playboy in 1974 and in 2009, she posed nude in front of the Mona Lisa for Juergen Teller. “It was a really magical experience,” she said, “and there was something wildly audacious and naughty about it too.”
Charlotte Rampling is one of the few artists who can justifiably be called a living legend. Her sultry looks, smouldering presence on screen and unforgettable performances have rightfully guaranteed her a place in cinema history.
Words: Alex Karas
Illustration: Tracy Ryan