Silent Upon a Peak at 59
Actress Charlotte Rampling’s cat eyes catch you in their vise. She knows more than she’ll ever let on; she’s seen things she’ll never tell. A glance could hide a sadistic affair; a flicker, a murder. Her angular face is intelligent, subtle. She achieves the maximum with the merest muscle. "She threw me a look I caught in my hip pocket," says Robert Mitchum in Farewell My Lovely (1975) about Rampling’s sizzling femme fatale. In The Night Porter, (1973) Dirk Bogarde says of her, "Those emerald eyes turn to steel within a second." Of course, in that movie Rampling lays a sadomasochistic lover of her former SS commandant.
The 58-year-old Rampling started her film career in 1965 (she was first a cover girl, tall and thin) with Rotten to the Core. She went on to earn international attention with Georgy Girl (l966) and to make 60 films—many in France. She’s suffered from depression, married a French composer, and has adult sons. Now divorced and living in Paris, she’s known for scorning the cosmetic surgery so common in Hollywood.
Although she’s been working steadily all along, in 2000 Rampling’s hauntingly beautiful face once again covered Paris kiosks and French magazines when she put on an award-winning performance in Under the Sand (Sous le Sable), directed by 34-year-old Francois Ozon. In the film, she plays a wife whose husband mysteriously disappears while they are at the beach. Although it appears that he has drowned, Rampling refuses to believe it. She continues to talk to him, she buys him ties, and when she finally takes a lover, he turns into her husband. Rampling conveys how this grief-stricken woman is profoundly disturbed—probably mad—with the tiniest movements: an eyebrow raised, an eyelid narrowed. No weeping, howling, or shrieking for Rampling. Rather, ambiguity and silence.
In her most recent U.S. release, this summer’s The Swimming Pool, also directed by Ozon, she plays Sarah Morton, a dowdy English mystery writer. (For this role, she cut her hair and buttoned up her shirts.) In the opening scene, a lady on the London tube looks up from her book, which features Morton on its bookjacket, to view Sarah in the flesh, opposite her. "Oh, Miss Morton. What a coincidence. I do so love your book." Sarah withers the hapless lady: "You are mistaken. I am not she."
With that, Ozon lures us into a convoluted labyrinth of creativity. Sarah is blocked and her English publisher suggests that she relax and write in his South of France country house; he will visit. But he calls her there to say he’s too busy, and though her lips merely quiver we know an earthquake of Richter 10 has struck. Later that night, his French daughter noisily arrives unannounced. Julie is rude, slutty, and mostly nude. During her stay, she and Sarah prowl around each other, and Julie brings home men to screw all night until a murder occurs.
Ozon jolts us by capturing Charlotte Rampling at her dazzling, wordless, quicksilver best. He often keeps his camera at a distance, unmoving; you see Sarah taking in the scene before what she’s saying is actually distilled. Or he’ll shoot a close-up of Sarah’s face as she asks Julie about her life, the older woman’s glance askance, her eyes narrowed a bit, spying, prying. The movie is unhurried, deliberate; its edits razor-sharp, its score ratcheting up the tension.
The rectangle of the blue swimming pool is rigid, like a book— a grid on which the action, both physical and psychological, is played out. At first, it is strewn with brown leaves, then it is cleaned and covered with a gray plastic, then a red raft floats on the blue. It changes like Sarah’s moods: Swimming Pool provides an ideal vehicle for this veteran’s talents, a contrapunto to the work of so many other female actors today.
GALEN WILLIAMS ran the Poetry Center of the 92nd Street YM-YWHA in the 1960s.