In naming the process of her own stardom, Charlotte Rampling considers as well the broader context, how looking is always simultaneous and vaguely mutual.
"Exposure is huge, and once you put your foot in it" says Charlotte Rampling, "and it takes off, it's quite a beast. It's quite devouring, because you have to find a way that you are not invaded all the time by lenses and by people looking." As she speaks in voiceover at the start of Charlotte Rampling: The Look, Rampling actually has her back to the camera, which observes her at a distance, posed in a perfectly spare room with big windows, plain table and chairs, and bleached wood floor. The stylized moment is followed by her mirror reflection, the frame lined by dressing room lights. It's a set, she's performing: you're among those people looking.
In naming the process of her own stardom, Rampling considers here the broader context, how looking is always simultaneous and vaguely mutual. Indeed, looking works all ways in Charlotte Rampling: The Look. Screening on 3 November at the DOC NYC (followed by a Q&A with Rampling and director Angelina Maccarone) and opening at the IFC Theater 4 November, the documentary has Rampling describing her sense of being looked at, how she manages looks: "With performing," she says as she stands against a wall, strikingly posed, "It just needs to be something that happened as if by magic, as if it had not been thought of." Just so: in this documentary, Rampling performs.
Breaking that performance into segments, each titled by an idea ("Exposure," "Resonance," "Desire," "Love") and addressing one of Rampling's films, Angelina Maccarone's film sets up its subject with a range of colleagues (Paul Auster, Frederick Seidel) and her daughters, Cynthia and Joy Fleury. Proposing that performance is perpetual, on and off screen or stage, that performing is a means of making a self, the film also allows that it can also be authentic, exposing and hiding, fiction and truth at once.
None of these are new ideas, and Rampling's philosophizing can sometimes sound banal ("What we do need to have is comfort… in moments of fear and despair and abandonment"). But she maintains her look -- her exquisite face of course, emphasized in close-ups from archival footage and also shot recently, as well as her look at the camera, ever seemingly direct and never quite like anyone else's. "The camera has to be the most intimate friend when you're filming or when you're being photographed," she says. Contemplating celebrity, and why a person might take it up, she offers, "When you're presenting yourself in front of crowds, what can happen? Challenging your senses to go dangerously into places, it's almost erotic." After all, she asserts, "That's really what fuels most interesting things, fear, facing the fear and getting out there."
The film makes use of her look, and doesn't push much beyond. Speaking with photographer Peter Lindbergh in the first segment, Rampling shares memories of their early shoots and also turns the camera on him. He performs his sense that this is unusual. But the film points out that such turning around has long been Rampling's mode. It cuts to a scene from Stardust Memories (1980), when Woody Allen approaches Rampling, playing an actress. "I've been looking at you all morning," he says from off-screen, his youngish voice high and Allen-ish. "You're incredibly beautiful, whoever you are," he proclaims, "Sitting off by yourself, reading, you have a really strange quality." When she demurs, he offers a common question, "How long have you been acting?" And again she puts him off, with an answer that seems genuine but is wholly predictable and, of course, the point: "I guess I've always been acting."
As The Look sorts through some variations on the look, its multiple directions and potential meanings, its contexts and permutations. With Paul Auster, she listens, briefly, as he describes the difficulty of her chosen profession: "I think being an actress is probably the most wrenchingly difficult job in movies, usually they cut you off at 40." Yes, "they" do. And so Rampling and Auster discuss how it's so different for a man -- that generic man -- to look at someone old, like Rampling or Auster's beloved wife, and to look at a 17-year-old girl. Poor men, so trained and acculturated, so ware of their looks and also so able to ignore their looks. "I was put into movies because I was beautiful," observes Rampling, "And then I capitalized on that to do other things."
Among these other things are the movies for which Rampling is best known, including Liliana Cavani's Night Porter (1974), famously banned in Italy on its release and also panned by Pauline Kael (who, Rampling recalls, wrote a "whole half page on how could I possibly have done this film, how it degraded women"). The scandal then helped to construct Rampling's career after, and she ponders here the ways that taboo shapes its own sort of looks. Speaking with artist and photographer Juergen Teller, with whom she made a series of photos where they pose provocatively, naked, entwined, and, at times, gazing back at the camera. As she describes successful "creative relationships," those "borne of a certain confidence," she and Juergen recall how they came to trust one another, in part by sharing their stories of suicides in their families -- his father and her sister.
"Feeling safe" is crucial to making art, suggests Rampling, even as that art may be designed to unsettle such feelings. Again. You've heard this story before, but as Rampling tells it, remembering her experiences in different fictions -- her character's creation of a young, nubile self in François Ozon's Swimming Pool (2003), getting socked in the face by Paul Newman in The Verdict (1982), craving a young black man (or a return to her own youth and self-control) in Heading South (2005) -- she performs again, helping you to see what she's seen. If she's never fully exposed, she is always looking.