Beyond the Multiplex

An encounter with Charlotte Rampling, still sexy after all these years; Richard Linklater's dark, lovely film.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published July 6, 2006 12:30PM (EDT)

I wasn't expecting Charlotte Rampling to be so sexy. That's an idiotic comment, I realize. We are talking, after all, about the woman who was the thinking-man's pinup girl of the 1970s, the woman who shaped the sexual aesthetic of an art-damaged generation, for better or worse, by portraying a former concentration-camp inmate embroiled in a kinky S/M relationship with her former Nazi torturer, played by the equally alluring Dirk Bogarde, in Liliana Cavani's 1974 "The Night Porter."

When I tell Rampling that I saw "The Night Porter" when I was young, and that it had a pronounced effect on me, she laughs and bows her head toward the hotel-room carpet and says, "Ye-e-es!" with a sharp, ironic exhalation of breath. It must be a strange thing to be an object of erotic fascination who has now grown older; Rampling has clearly heard remarks like that from a great many young and formerly young men, and what can she really say to us? The hunger for experience, for dark wisdom, for knowledge of forbidden things provoked by the 28-year-old Rampling in that film -- which probably wouldn't seem especially good or interesting or transgressive after all this time -- is not something she or anyone else could ever satisfy. We're stuck with it, and although it seems ungentlemanly to report this, Charlotte Rampling is now 60 years old and a grandmother.

If Rampling is no longer exactly the same enigmatic, melancholy beauty she was in those years -- the years not just of "The Night Porter" but of Visconti's "The Damned" and John Boorman's sci-fi camp classic "Zardoz" and playing Anne Boleyn in "Henry VIII and His Six Wives" and opposite Robert Mitchum in "Farewell, My Lovely" -- she remains a startling physical presence. When I enter her hotel room, she is in motion, gliding across the floor with a dancer's silent lightness, stretching, gathering her hair in one hand and letting it fall, extending the other for a firm handshake. She is wearing a man-style fitted white shirt and tailored black pants, which emphasize her lean, aristocratic frame. If she's put on so much as a pound in the last 30 years, you can't see it. She seems to be a woman very much aware of the power she possesses, and determined to enjoy it. She gives me one of her trademark half-smiles, the one that suggests some shared but unspoken understanding, arches an eyebrow and says, in that immediately recognizable contralto, "Charlotte. Please. Do. Come in."

Most of our conversation is serious talk about her career, especially her renewed recent career as the designated Sexy Older Woman of French cinema, first in the films of François Ozon ("Under the Sand" and "Swimming Pool") and now in Laurent Cantet's "Heading South," a provocative tale of sex tourism under the brutal Haitian dictatorship of the '70s. (Look for Stephanie Zacharek's review on Friday.) But Rampling is not above occasional flirtatious efforts to play to type. When the publicist fails to bring honey with Rampling's tea, as she had requested, she makes a great show of aggrievement, stirring the cup gravely and gracefully licking the spoon. After the publicist has left the room, she smiles as if to herself and says, "Well, I think she has been very bad. I think she should be punished. Don't you, Andrew? How do you think we should punish her?" Somehow the fact that she says all this without ever looking in my direction makes it much more effective. (She should do a series of videos: "How to Control the Minds of Men: Charlotte Rampling's Advice for Women.")

In "Heading South," Rampling plays Ellen, a professor of French at Wellesley who spends each summer at a private resort in Haiti where an array of beautiful, bemuscled black boys are available to the female clientele, mostly affluent single women in their 40s or older who have despaired of finding mates through more conventional means. Ellen is the queen bee of this establishment, assuring newcomers like Brenda (Karen Young) that this paradise is as beautiful as it seems, that it's share and share alike. She doesn't know that Brenda, a younger and more conventionally attractive woman, has a history with Legba (Ménothy Cesar), the handsome teenager Ellen has set aside as her private consort.

Depicting mature women who pay boys for sexual favors may be almost as shocking in 2006 as Rampling's film about a sadomasochistic love affair with a Nazi guard was 32 years ago. Throughout her career, Rampling has been drawn to challenging erotic subject matter, a fact she cautiously admits. "There are a lot of things that people still don't talk about, intimate things," she says. "Women certainly don't talk about them, not really, and I don't think men do either. I suppose there is something in me that is drawn to those things that aren't easily talked about."

Rampling has often said that she finds herself in every character she plays, and certainly Ellen has that odd combination of an almost detached, ironic demeanor, coupled with a tremendous, driving hunger, that typifies the Rampling role. It seems implausible, I suggest as delicately as I can, that she has ever known the need to pay for sexual companionship. "Well, you just don't know about people's lives, do you?" she says. "You don't know what goes on behind closed doors, or the difficulties people have in relationships. It could have happened to me. It really could have. To think that a good-looking woman would have to create this kind of paradise situation because it's so arid where she lives in terms of relationships, there's something very disturbing about that. As disturbing as the misery that young Haitians live in, in their own country. This film shows us the meeting of two disturbing ways of life."

Making this film with Cantet, the director of the modest art-house hits "Time Out" and "Human Resources," is a continuation of Rampling's dalliance with a younger generation of French directors. This began with Ozon, who cast her in 2000's "Under the Sand" as a middle-aged woman haunted by her husband's disappearance. Its combination of mystery, eroticism and prodigious grief was perfectly pitched for Rampling, who seemed to have lost none of her star power after years of middling roles in lesser pictures. At the time, Ozon observed that "Under the Sand" was "a documentary about Charlotte Rampling." He described her curious allure perhaps better than anyone else ever has: "Glamorous, with a certain magic. But beneath is something you feel, very strong, very deep. Something she doesn't show through actions or words."

Today, Rampling says her work with Ozon in that film and in "Swimming Pool" became "a sort of exploration -- a younger director making films with an older woman. It was interesting for a young man to choose to do that, and I think it changed the way women could be perceived in cinema. Possibly more so in Europe, because America still has a problem with the sexuality of older women." Still, Rampling has always been scornful of political dogma, and when I suggest that movies remain unfair to older women, she brushes feminist theory aside. "It's true that there are many more opportunities for older men than older women, not just in cinema but in life. So their stories are more interesting. That isn't fair or unfair. It's just reality."

Since Ozon jump-started the second or perhaps third wave of her career, Rampling has spoken much more openly about her own private life -- about the suicide of her beloved sister, Sarah, in Argentina in 1966 (protecting a family secret, Rampling had long claimed that Sarah died of a brain hemorrhage); about her years of depression and the extramarital affair that ended her long marriage to French composer Jean-Michel Jarré; about her new boyfriend, a French businessman several years her junior. She seems at peace with herself, as a remarkably handsome grandmother of 60 who is still able to wrap younger journalists around her finger, in a way she never has before.

When she talks about the specific pain felt by Ellen in "Heading South," I suddenly realize that Rampling could be describing all her characters -- Marie in "Under the Sand" and the repressed mystery author Sarah in "Swimming Pool" and the treacherous Laura in "The Verdict" and the tormented Lucia in "The Night Porter" and the aristocratic wife Elisabeth in "The Damned." She might be describing herself as well. Ellen may seem to exist in a perverse situation, a realm of predatory sexual tourism, she says. "But we are still just talking about human feeling, about the misery people live in, in terms of not being able to find the affection they need, not being able to connect with another human being in a loving, tender way, not feeling that they are being seen, not feeling that they are really being considered. She's a disturbing character; she's not asking to be liked. The film is not necessarily asking to be liked. It's asking to be watched, because it's about reality."

"Heading South" opens July 7 in New York; July 21 in Los Angeles and Dennis, Mass. (Cape Cod); Aug. 4 in Boston; Aug. 11 in Santa Fe, N.M.; Aug. 14 in Philadelphia; Aug. 18 in Santa Barbara, Calif., and Washington; Aug. 25 in San Diego and Seattle; Sept. 1 in Berkeley, Calif., Monterey, Calif., and Santa Cruz, Calif.; Sept. 8 in Portland, Ore.; and Sept. 15 in Dallas and Houston, with more cities to follow.

"A Scanner Darkly": A Philip K. Dick adaptation or a moody sequel to "Slacker"? Linklater's latest animated film is both
When I met Richard Linklater a few weeks ago in Cannes, I suggested to him that his forthcoming ensemble drama "Fast Food Nation," adapted from Eric Schlosser's nonfiction bestseller, was a movie for the American people -- but "A Scanner Darkly" was a movie for his people. He laughed, but he's either too shrewd a self-marketer or too guileless (or both) to bite on a line like that.

Linklater insists that all his films, even cheerful, big-budget studio productions like "School of Rock" or "The Bad News Bears," feel personal to him. I can't dispute that, but I want to insist on some kind of distinction. Let's put it this way: "A Scanner Darkly," a mesmerizing dark comedy adapted from Philip K. Dick's story, using the same combination of live-action footage and rotoscope animation that Linklater employed in "Waking Life," will have particular resonance for viewers of about his age and generational predilections. If "Slacker" and "Dazed and Confused" were major cultural events in your life (along with, say, "Repo Man" and "Stranger Than Paradise" and "Blue Velvet" and "Sid and Nancy"), then this movie is for you.

The discovery Linklater made in "Waking Life" was that you could have the eye-candy appeal and imagination-stretching flexibility of animation without losing the immediacy and individuality of real actors, and the cast he assembles here is a treat. Keanu Reeves stars as Bob Arctor, a hipster deadbeat with a house full of degenerate friends who spends his work days in an identity-masking shape-shifter suit (I can't describe this in words, but it's highly cool) as a government narcotics agent, trying to stop the spread of a mysterious intoxicant called Substance D.

This is Reeves in his gloomy, introspective, existential-hero mode, but he's beautifully balanced by Robert Downey Jr. and Woody Harrelson as his two moronic housemates, Jim Barris and Ernie Luckman. If you've ever lived in a household where large amounts of perception-altering substances were ingested on a daily basis (I'm including cheap weed and Budweiser), Barris and Luckman will seem hilariously and perhaps distressingly familiar. Downey's character is the know-it-all alpha male, fueled by conspiracy theory, misremembered high school physics and dramatic overestimates of his own competence. Harrelson's is the happy-go-lucky surf stoner, constantly uncertain where he is, who he is, or whether everybody else is getting the joke and he's not.

Throw in Winona Ryder, who gives an affecting performance as Arctor's mysterious almost-girlfriend and drug connection, and a classic Dick plot full of switchbacks, double-crosses and drug-induced hallucination, and you've got a strange brew that I found as full of passion, humor and tragedy as any so-called realistic film I've seen all year. Linklater is simultaneously paying tribute to the trashed slacker households of his youth and pointing out that all too easily they become paranoid and pathetic sleaze pits where self-involved young people throw away their lives.

"A Scanner Darkly" doesn't offer any obvious sound bites about the real world's anti-drug hysteria or our contemporary surveillance society, but its portrayal of American suburbia as a zone of physical decay, chemical addiction and ever more intrusive high-end technology could hardly seem more urgent. Arctor becomes incapable of telling whether he's making love to Ryder's character or someone else; he is ordered to spy on his best friends and betray them, only to discover that at least some of them have already betrayed him. Do these things result from widespread addiction to Substance D, or from the society that has made it necessary? And how do we tell the difference?

In its mode of Dickian paranoid gloom, "A Scanner Darkly" is among the darkest and loveliest movies you'll see this year. But I found it most effective as a depiction of sun-baked Southern California slackerdom run to seed, and that mode is both ironic and elegiac. I don't think Linklater is necessarily the best American director, but he does have a stylistic versatility and small-c catholicism that's utterly his own. There's no other filmmaker, living or dead, who could produce a futuristic sci-fi nightmare, a hipster comedy, a haunting film noir and a cartoon, all in the same movie.

"A Scanner Darkly" opens July 7 in major cities, with a wider national release to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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