Woody Allen introduced me to Charlotte Rampling. It was during the early autumn of 1980 or possibly the early winter of 1981. I was a moody preteen adolescent and family friends took me to see STARDUST MEMORIES (1980). At the time I was only remotely familiar with Allen’s work, having seen a few of his “early, funny pictures” but nothing had really prepared for me for the film I was about to see. And the indelible image of a broken, cheerless Charlotte Rampling quietly weeping into the camera while Allen zooms in on her remarkable face was seared into my brain. I sympathized with the hopelessness Rampling seemed to be conveying during those few moments but I’d never seen it illustrated in quite the same way. STARDUST MEMORIES quickly became a sort of touchstone film for me and the beguiling and beautiful Charlotte Rampling instantly became one of my favorite actresses.

Not long afterward I would see Rampling in THE VERDICT (1982), where’s she’s slapped by Paul Newman followed by FAREWELL, MY LOVELY (1975), where she’s shot by Robert Mitchum as well as ORCA (1977), where she hunts down a killer whale alongside Richard Harris. And by the end of the decade I was introduced to her earlier work in unusual, experimental and thoughtful films such as GEORGY GIRL (1966), THE DAMNED (1969), ASYLUM (1972), ZARDOZ(1974), THE NIGHT PORTER (1974) and ANGEL HEART (1987), which all became important benchmarks in the development of my own personal tastes and film preferences, as well as my appreciation of the seemingly limitless possibilities of cinema.

Rampling’s ability to play unlikable, but somehow incredibly endearing characters, intrigued me. She was a bundle of quietly seething opposites. Bone thin, elegantly poised, conveying vulnerability and weakness while projecting an inner strength as well as a vicious streak. I believed she could easily devour any of her costars. Rampling is both inviting and dangerous but I found the combination of her visceral power, brains and feline beauty absolutely fascinating. I never get tired of watching her.

This is why I was eager to see THE LOOK, a new film by director Angelina Maccarone that focuses on the enigmatic 66-year-old actress. Unlike so many current documentaries that encourage others to ramble on about working, living or admiring the film’s subject, THE LOOK lets the subject speak for themselves. Charlotte Rampling’s is the dominant voice in the film and it is her words that lend THE LOOK its weight. The film is broken down into various sections that attempt to convey Rampling’s thoughts about timeless subjects such as Age, Beauty, Taboo, Desire, Death, and Love. She meets up with various friends, family members, and associates who discuss the topics with her, while clips from her films frame the conversation. But it’s Rampling’s voice that dominates the discussions.

“Desire is within you. Desire is not meant to be fulfilled. Desire is there to execute, to operate. It’s a formidable tool. So we fill ourselves with desire. We need to try and find ways – almost alchemic ways – to make it happen within ourselves. Some people seem to keep it alive on and on. I can’t so I’m just talking for myself. You don’t know what it is but it doesn’t have to be sexual. It can be some feeling that this person gives you and you desire. You want to be with them. You like their company. You want to watch them. I think Cinema is really one of the major places that this takes place for people. And that’s what cinema is about. You are the projection of inner things.” – Charlotte Rampling

 

The actress avoids talking directly about her personal life and focuses on her work and thought process instead, which I deeply appreciated. While some critics have complained about the film’s lack of focus and Rampling’s aloofness, I found THE LOOK to be an insightful examination of her creative abilities, which interests me much more than vague reminiscences about her love life and childhood traumas. And it’s the acting, along with the need to carefully break down and reassemble human emotions, that clearly concerns Rampling the most. She’s a consummate performer and that’s plainly apparent if you’ve seen her work but it becomes crystallized in this absorbing documentary.

Rampling spends the entirety of the film discussing the importance of being present in the moment (“Withdrawing won’t protect you.”), being a good listener (“Let them feel that you want to get to know them and want to hear their story, it’s the incredible gift you give them.”) and suggesting that we can find strength in the painful experiences of the past (“The best remedy for any form of pain is to let it happen to you.”) while stressing the need for spontaneity (“You don’t prepare for life. Life happens.”) These are all critically important lessons for any actor and that’s really what THE LOOK conveys. It’s an indirect rumination on the acting process and ambiguously relays how we can all benefit from the skills that great actors have at their disposal.

And if truth be told, we’re all becoming actors these days. It was Shakespeare who originally said, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts” but the bard couldn’t have known how relevant those lines would become in our modern world. In the age of Facebook and Twitter, where we tend to over-share every aspect of our lives while attempting to micromanage our identities, playing a well-rehearsed part has become a daily activity for many. This is further exemplified by security cameras being placed on every city block and the awareness that any of our public humiliations could end up on Youtube.

The director of THE LOOK, as well as Charlotte Rampling herself, seem well aware of this fact. At one point the actress says, “I don’t think there are too many public taboos. I think that now, with the internet, everything is potentially seeable, doable. There are no secrets anymore.” This pointed observation conveys Rampling’s desire to keep some of her personal life private, but it also taps into the film’s underlying message that we’re all actors at heart attempting to navigate this stage called life. In this atypical documentary, we look at Rampling, the actress, model, mother, lover, friend, self-proclaimed monster and artist, while she looks right back at us. The oblique nature of THE LOOK will undoubtedly frustrate anyone eager to see a conventional exposé detailing every aspect of the actress’ life but I found it absolutely mesmerizing.

CHARLOTTE RAMPLING: THE LOOK is available on DVD from Kino Lorber Films.

Further reading:
– Looking for the Alchemy: An Interview with Charlotte Rampling at Cineaste

Originally published on TCM.com at Turner Classic Movies’ official blog April 26, 2012