Charlotte Rampling has inhabited enough disturbed — and disturbing — characters to fill an entire handbook of psychological disorders. Over a five-decade career, the British actress known for her cool sexuality and penetrating gaze has embraced the dark side of cinema, playing a concentration camp survivor engaged in a sadomasochistic relationship with her Nazi tormentor (1974’s The Night Porter); a housewife in love with a chimpanzee (1986’s Max, mon amour); and a widow in denial of her husband’s death (2000’s Under the Sand). And that’s merely a sampling. ”I enjoy delving into the difficult aspects of human nature,” explains Rampling in her husky voice and patrician accent. ”It’s like trying to discover the mystery behind things, and cinema can give you beautiful opportunities to do this.” This year has certainly been plentiful for the actress, who recently turned 60. In March, she appeared in Basic Instinct 2; last month, she popped up in the French thriller Lemming; and now, she stars in French director Laurent Cantet’s Heading South, a multilingual drama about three women who travel to 1970s Haiti to find sex and romance. We rang Rampling at home in Paris to talk about her passion for the heady stuff.
In Heading South, you play a Wellesley professor who goes to Haiti each year to, uh, connect sexually with a much younger man (played by Haitian actor Ménothy Cesar). It’s sort of a tourism of mutual exploitation, no?
Mmm-hmm. And I think everyone gets something from it. There’s not cruelty there, there’s not perverted manipulation. It’s a rather weird sort of sharing between people who need each other for different reasons. And at this particular time — it was pre-AIDS — it wasn’t overt, it was done discreetly. And in this story, it’s not brutal until the storyline follows what is happening [politically] in Haiti. I think it’s a very ambitious, disturbing project because it’s about a subject which has not really been discussed on film — going [on holiday] to attract young men. I didn’t find many women that would talk about it when I started to investigate the subject.
Exploring the sexuality of women over 40 — it’s not something you find much in American cinema. But you’ve worked mostly in Europe over the years. Would you consider working in the U.S. more regularly?
Offers do come in, but it’s not really quite what I want to do. I remember my kids were just longing for me to do a big, sort of Raiders of the Lost Ark-style blockbuster or a Lethal Weapon — you know, the big American movies, entertainment on a big scale, which America does beautifully. So maybe in the second chapter of my life, I’ll come up for one or two of those, you know? [Laughs]
You once said that you choose roles that you can identify with. Is there a character you identify with the most?
I think Sous le sable (Under the Sand) was the most close to being about just me. There are always parallels when you’re playing characters, but Sous le sable just seemed to be very close to me. I can’t specifically say [why] — I just felt it when I saw the film. I don’t usually have a relationship with my image on screen, but Sous le sable, I did. And it really felt that I was just looking at me.
That must have been eerie.
It was. It was quite eerie. [Laughs]
Well, speaking of your on-screen persona, have you grown tired of your femme-fatale image?
Well, I’m quite flattered that it still comes up. Nobody knows how they’re going to age, and I’ve never wanted to tamper with that because I’m much more interested in the process — how it happens and seeing how it happens naturally. I’d rather play my age than not play my age and see what that gives forward. And it’s been really interesting, actually. These roles [I’ve done recently] are … about women feeling that they are still desirable and needing to be desirable.
There was a story about you in The Independent that said you still ”rample.”
Whatever that word is supposed to mean, it’s quite onomatopoetic — you can imagine what it means!
They defined it as: ”To render someone helpless with a cool, elusive sexuality.”
Aw, well, that ain’t bad at 60, is it?
At any age!
At any age, right! [Laughs]
How would you sum up your career at this stage?
Well, what would I say? Um, I really did want to make films like I’ve made. I turned a lot of work down. People thought I was a bit crazy, people thought I never had ambition to be a Hollywood star. I don’t know if I could have been — I’m not saying that — but I really did want to make things that I thought could perhaps wake people up a bit and provoke, not with a very loud voice because these films are quite fragile. Some of the films that I have done haven’t been seen very much, but it’s okay. It doesn’t matter, they’re there. And so I’m happy about that, yeah I am. I don’t think anybody’s asked me that question. [Laughs] You made me think about it!
You recently wrapped Paradise, your third movie with your Under the Sand and Swimming Pool director Francois Ozon, correct?
That’s right, yeah. But this is not at all a starring role. I’ve got a small role, almost like his mascot — because it’s his first full English-language film.
You and he obviously work well together.
Yeah. It’s like meeting people that you really, really feel something very strong for. Some of them you marry and some of them you work with. Or sometimes you do both! [Laughs]
You act in English and French regularly, and you recently shot movies in both Italian (The Keys to the House) and Spanish (Caótica Ana). Creatively, does the language change your process?
No, it’s really quite exciting. You can believe that you’re somebody else when you speak another language. I can get rid of my English-ness, which I quite like!