This year, the Marrakech Film Festival, with the highest-profile jury it has ever boasted and a Scandinavian tribute that brought some of the most exciting international filmmakers to town too, was heaving with ingenues and rising stars. But one of the pleasures of this festival has always been the opportunity it affords to get to meet with some of the more established, classic actors of our time—last year we enjoyed a riotous interview with Terence Stamp, for example—and this year was no exception as we got to sit down with Charlotte Rampling, whose fascinating and unique presence has been gracing our screens since the mid-sixties.
In fact, in the early part of her career, Rampling's almost unearthly beauty, and the wildly unconventional life she lived offscreen (drug use, menages a trois, personal tragedies) kind of defined an era, while her daring and transgressive arthouse roles (in Visconti's account of deviance and moral decline under the Third Reich "The Damned"; then as a camp survivor who falls in love with her Nazi captor in "The Night Porter"; right up to having an affair with a chimpanzee in "Max Mon Amour") marked her out as an actress of singular bravery and curiosity. We should probably confess at this point that an accidental childhood viewing of that last film, especially the scene where the irate husband throws back the bedsheet to discover the chimp there while Rampling stares at him unapologetically, kind of broke this writer's brain a little bit, never to wholly recover. Indeed, there's such an icy, almost insolent intelligence at work in a lot of Rampling's performances that we were a little trepidatious going in to meet her. But in person, Rampling is warm, articulate, funny and immensely easy to talk to, and so we left with a different kind of crush on her than we had going in.
Recently you were working with Guy Maddin on an ongoing portmanteau-style film, can you tell us about that?
Oh, "Spiritismes"? I’m not sure if, or how, that is coming out, I think it's maybe meant to be an internet release or something. I believe he did it over a few countries, we did ours in Paris in the Pompidou art gallery. It's a series of recreations of films that have been lost—old films—and we reenacted parts of them, reinvented them, these old, abandoned or lost films.
What film did you reenact?
We did "Therese Raquin," with 5 characters in it, and when we filmed it you could watch us being filmed. In the Pompidou there’s a large exhibition space, so from above people could look down on us filming, so it was a theatrical experience too. [Maddin] did it right after "Keyhole," but I’d kind of forgotten about it, so it’s good of you to remind us! It was never destined to be a film it was always going to be an internet thing, something...strange—a ‘project’.
And was that indefinability something that attracted to you to it?
Yes, like that, I do a lot of projects with visual artists too, photographers and video artists. It’s a question of what you want to join yourself to. I have an inner choreography, in a way, that’s not always about acting, it’s more to do with wanting to join up with a project or a person. Like "Spiritismes" or I’ve just done something with a visual artist in New York, called "Cutaways." I did "Vanishing Point" years ago and had been cut out, and she’s using 3 people who had been cut out of films and she’s blending them into an artwork. [As an aside, the artist is Agnieska Kurant, who collaborated with legendary editor Walter Murch on the project and the other two actors are Abe Vigoda and Dick Miller, cut from "The Conversation" and "Pulp Fiction" respectively. Sounds like a terrific concept.]
So things like that interest me and it’s the same with film, it’s got to be something I feel I can have a relationship with, not in an acting way, more in a being way, it’s got to be somehow linked in an organic way to myself.
I wonder if part of that link is a certain moral ambivalence that many of your film roles share. Is that what you look for or is that what you bring to a role?
A little bit of the two, but the potential must be there, to have that ambivalence. To not really know... all that needs to be blurred, because there’s something I find fascinating about that, it’s the way I am, so I want to investigate. So I pick out roles, that are often quite small but they allow me to experiment with this way of being.
...that ambivalence always leaves a sort of question mark, it's an infiltration thing. It’s how in real life you can infiltrate societies and into cultures in a way where you can be a stranger and not be a part of it, so you can have the luxury of distance to absorb it. I’ve actually lived as a foreigner most of my life anyway, it suits me fine. As a foreigner you don’t have the rules about family, culture, society etc. Yet I’m completely English, I can’t get away from that I’ve brought things into me but I can’t lose my Englishness, but living away from it was great for me. I’ve always wanted to be a traveler, physically and mentally, and cinema was able to give me a lot of that.
And certainly in your career you've worked across various national cinemas. Do you see differences or changes in the respective national industries?
I don’t see a huge difference, English cinema has been more or less the same for a long time, it’s always been quite small and with not much money. [French cinema] well, they make far too many movies—they make 250 films a year which is far too much, and they can’t afford it. They aren't bad films, often quite nice little comedies that will get a TV run, but they’re not necessarily spectacular. It means you get a lot of young filmmakers, for instance in the [French Oscar] Cesar box [of For Your Consideration films] maybe 40% of these are first films. So it’s an awful lot of money spent on first-time directors.