Geraldine Page and Charlotte Rampling
The cold heart at the centre of Allen’s coldest film, Page’s bravura turn as Eve, a suicidal mother to three troubled daughters, stands among the very greatest performances in Woody Allen’s oeuvre. Indeed, this most extraordinary of actresses – she was nominated for eight Academy Awards over her decades-long career – was never better than she was in this role.
An aging interior decorator whose artistic identity has been built around the precision of her vision for spaces – but whose austere sense of detail and colour scheme (variations on beige and taupe) mimics her lack of emotional warmth – Page’s character has grown depressive and desperate and burdensome to her children. When her somewhat pompous and wildly self-centered husband suddenly leaves her for the vibrant and (instructively) red-dressed Pearl (Maureen Stapleton), she shatters. Indeed, she shatters rather like those bright red glass candle holders that she knocks over in the very scene where Arthur breaks the news to her that he will be re-marrying with Pearl.
Page’s disintegration is brilliantly conceived, and it’s devastating. She disappears from the film for what feels like ages following Pearl’s arrival on the scene, only to return looking more desolate and faded than ever. And yet, for all of our pity, there is very little to actually like about Page’s Eve. For my money, it’s the fact that Page allows us to dislike her character as much as she does which only deepens the effect her anguish has upon us. We feel bad about her situation, but we don’t want her around, either. It’s harrowing, and among Allen’s most powerful creations. In Page’s hands, a difficult, pitiful character is utterly humanized.
Though she would reach great heights again with The Trip to Bountiful a few years later – and she would be awarded the Academy Award for her work in that difficult, but often lovely, film – Interiors remains, for me, her most indelible later work. There is something about her bearing, her counter-intuitive straight-backed approach to playing a depressive, that remains with you long after the film has ended. There’s a bizarre sense of confidence underlying this broken woman, a vestige of the once indomitable interior designer she had been in her youth. Page’s Eve is pushy, tough, and yet completely, it would seem, powerless to arrest the chain of events that are moving ever closer to her oblivion. Her final surrender to the sea, in what is certainly the most nightmarish image in the whole of Allen’s career, completely relies on the complexity of character that she has presented us. Her deliberate march into the freezing deep is calculated, final, and irrevocable—a decisive act of authority from a woman who has seen so much of it stripped away.
Stardust Memories (1980)
The look. That predatory, feline look, somehow as much sex as hostility all coiled up in her face, her eyes, her perfumed gaze. Charlotte Rampling, in one of the most complex roles Allen ever wrote, was simply note perfect as Dorrie in Stardust Memories. A dark, troubled beauty, and ingénue for Sandy, the neurotic genius played by Allen, she is the flame that draws in the moth. Simultaneously she is an abstraction, an imagined ideal of stormy sexuality and psychological turmoil that Sandy (and, perhaps the real-life Allen too) believes teases out the brilliance in the artist. She is that classic trope: the suicidal, hysterical, darkly inspiring muse that the artist needs in order to produce good work, but yet cannot hold for too long. Rampling, with limited screen time and few lines of dialogue, manages to seduce and beguile as she simply becomes the embodiment of that kind of dangerous beauty. What undisclosed pain does she endure, what secrets does she protect behind her lithium-addled facade?
We get hints of her awful past, of course – there are numerous not-very-subtle suggestions that she has been sexually abused by her father – but when she has her final breakdown, narrated in an edgy series of jump cuts as she faces the camera, spilling out random bits of story, emotion, apprehension, we know for certain that she will never be at peace until she is free from Sandy and his perverse need to revel in her illness. Rampling, as the black sun at the center of this most autobiographical of Allen’s films, fills up what could have been merely a metaphor for a disturbed woman with humanity, mystery, and a dreamy sensuality. In the famous scene when Sandy recalls his one true moment of happiness, all we see is her face, her eyes downcast as she lies on the floor casually reading a newspaper. Then, almost furtively, she glances up, at you. She holds the look. It contains multitudes.
Allen once said that his ideal dinner companions would be Rampling and Franz Kafka, which tells us something of his affection for her, though he would never use her again in any of his films. (Kafka, however, he’d return to again and again.) While she would go on to star in a variety of excellent movies, bringing her indefinable air of sophistication and enigma to each role, for my money she didn’t match her work in Stardust Memories until her turn in the spooky and powerfully sexual 2003 film Swimming Pool. That film provided a bit of a boost to her image which she has carried through among the most productive periods in her career. Still every bit as fascinating onscreen today as in 1979, Rampling remains an indelible beauty and an incomparable actor.