From model to movie star, Charlotte Rampling has long been in the public eye. Yet it’s the secrets of her childhood that take the spotlight in her first-ever memoir.
A fashion and beauty icon of the swinging sixties, Charlotte Rampling became a household name in 1966 with her breakthrough role in Georgy Girl. Her feline, heavy-lidded eyes defined many European art-house films, in which she took on provocative roles including a concentration camp survivor, a neurotic and a monkey paramour. Her latest creative venture is a short autobiographical memoir entitled Who I Am, in which she talks about her childhood, family and the events that changed her forever.
Her mysterious demeanour and brooding gaze, coined “The Look”, were the reason why many directors wanted her in their films. In person, Charlotte lives up to every bit of this icy reputation. Sitting in a London restaurant, she looks effortlessly cool in a white shirt and timeless black suit when I meet her, oozing quiet confidence and nonchalance. Does she identify with this “ice queen” image ascribed to her?
“Not in my deep, interior me, but yes, with other people. When I’m with people I trust, I’m very lovable and funny. But that’s just when I’m feeling trustful—I don’t feel it very much with other people. I’ll be absolutely fine and nice but it won’t go much further than that. I don’t really know why. That’s what happened—I became that person,” she says unemotionally, sipping on a tall latte.
How did she become that person? That’s one of the things she ponders in her first autobiography—a poetic collection of memories reaching back to some of her earliest years. “I think what fascinates me about childhood is the ‘not knowing’. You’re beginning to grow up and start to understand a few things—but very little, so the hopes, dreams and possibilities are all so huge and terrifying.”
Charlotte’s own childhood was a mixed bag. The daughter of Isabel, a painter, and Godfrey, an Army officer in the Royal Artillery, she and her sister Sarah moved around a lot as children. Some of her happiest memories are those of living in France as a young teenager.
“There was a real sense of natural freedom. We went to school on bicycles, we lived next to the forest, had a lovely dog. My mother used to listen to all these musicals—we knew them all by heart. And then rock came in and there was Bill Haley.”
"I'd rather be doing my weird paintings that acting. But I've done it for a long time and I'll keep doing it."
Her face lights up as she starts singing the lyrics to “Rock Around the Clock”: “One, two, three o’clock, four o’clock, rock; five, six...” “I’d never heard music like that before, I think I was 12”, she adds, giggling.
Yet the idyllic life in France wasn’t the defining feature of her childhood. Though she was looked after well, her parents are frequently presented as cold and reserved in the book. One passage describes Charlotte’s father taking his wife’s diaries she’d kept since she was 12, along with hundreds of letters and photos, and stuffing them into a bag, putting them all out on the pavement, without saying a word.
“It’s only later on in life that we look back and we realise that it was actually more difficult than it appeared to be. But the child doesn’t feel that—it’s just getting on with life. In that sense there weren’t any dramas, but actually there were, because there are always things written between the lines.”
The event that would wound Charlotte the most was her beloved sister’s suicide. At the of 23, she shot herself in Argentina, after giving birth prematurely. Her father kept the cause of her death under wraps for three years, claiming it was a brain haemorrhage in an attempt to protect the family from pain. It was a life-altering event for Charlotte that marked the beginning of her numerous bouts of depression.
“It goes inside and then does you a lot of damage. And there’s nothing you can do about it”, she lowers her voice and her eyes avoid mine for the first time in our conversation. “You go into a form of denial and you keep going—you’re working, you get married, you have babies—but there’s something that’s damaged inside you. And at that time there wasn’t really counselling. I went to see a therapist after a little while but I couldn’t do it.”
She stops for a lengthy silence. “So, you just go on. And the reason I had the depression was that there was a lot of that damage that was just building up and eventually the body just goes, Wait a minute...and then you need to set about understanding how to repair yourself. It took me a very long time.”
Her normally deep voice goes more and more quiet until her words become almost inaudible and another hefty pause follows. “It comes slowly, almost like you’ve got somebody living inside you that’s just waiting. So it’s an on-going thing, slowly, slowly, until it gets you and you actually can’t function anymore.”
"The reason I had the depression was that there was a lot of that damage that was just building up and eventually the body just goes, Wait a minute…"
I ask her whether writing the book felt therapeutic, referring to the ending in which she describes her son phoning her from her sister’s grave in Argentina.
“I think so, but I didn’t know that this book was about her at all. It wasn’t meant to be. When I got this call, I said, ‘Well, that’s it. That’s the book.’ He’d gone there in my place. I’d never been to her grave, because nothing had been ritualised at all about her death. No body, no funeral, no nothing, she just—poof—disappeared.”
When asked if she feels happy these days, Charlotte gives an ambiguous answer. “I think happiness is a state like sadness, where you can be in a funk, feel a bit down, feel anxious, feel tired or happy—there are all these things.
“Suddenly I’ll feel happy, suddenly wow...and it’s a great feeling. And then ten minutes later all these things are happening and you’re not necessarily thinking about being happy, but you felt it .”
It’s surprising to discover that acting doesn’t bring her much joy. Although she’s been very active, recently appearing in ITV drama Broadchurch and an adaptation of a Julian Barnes novel, The Sense of an Ending, her approach to work is complicated. “I take pleasure in having worked, usually not in the work. It’s something that I want to do, but the actual work—when you’re working—it’s not pleasurable for me. But working is what I need to do.”
She looks for the right words as she chews over her answer. “It’s just uncomfortable. I’d rather be doing my weird paintings than acting. But I do it well and I’ve done it for a long time and I’ll keep doing it. Finding roles that really make me feel uncomfortable—it has to be sort of spiky and difficult, otherwise it won’t interest me.”
Her latest film The Sense of an Ending falls under this category. Charlotte stars as Veronica Ford—a woman haunted by a painful past. “Veronica’s really spiky. She always was a woman who did things in her own way and didn’t care what the consequences were. Not a great person, but an interesting character. There’s a lot of her in me. Those are the things that I prefer working on—the things that I recognise in myself.”
This spikiness has been present ever since her earliest roles in controversial films such as The Night Porter and The Damned, which earned her an edgy reputation. “I’ve done quite a lot of things in the sense of showing and photography. It doesn’t matter to me. If that’s what I think I should be doing, I’ll do it—I don’t need anybody’s approval. That’s a strong mechanism I have. I’ve done it and I’ll accept the consequences. Not going to whinge now,” she laughs.
She slowed down when she was in her late twenties, after meeting her second husband, musician Jean Michel Jarre. “That’s when I really backed off. I just wanted a home, a family and to live as normally as I could, which we did for quite a while. I still went off to do films, but I always came back to that beautiful house, with animals and the kids. That meant that I sacrificed a lot of roles because I just didn’t want to go away.” Their marriage was publicly dissolved in 1997 and she was later engaged to a French communications tycoon Jean-Noël Tassez until his death in 2015.
So did she reveal all her secrets in her memoir? Charlotte doesn’t think so—as there are many things that haven’t yet been revealed even to herself. “There are all sorts of areas inside ourselves that aren’t investigated and if we start to meditate on them, that’s when they start to come up.“Things that weigh on my soul have been such a big part of my life that I’d probably feel a bit odd without anything weighing on my soul”, she smiles.
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