Portrait of a woman

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Charlotte Rampling is one of fashion and cinema’s most enduring icons, immortalised by Helmut Newton, muse to Yohji Yamamoto, revered by legions of creative greats. Glass spends a day in Paris with a living legend
Charlotte Rampling, an English woman educated in France in the ‘50s, became and remains one of the world’s most iconic stars – as actress, model and muse. Starring in key roles within the British film-making renaissance in the ‘60s, Rampling played lead roles in The Knack (1965), ‘Georgy Girl (1966) and Visconti’s La caduta degli dei (1969); and as muse to photographers Helmut Newton, Jeanloup Sieff and presently Juergen Teller and Marc Jacobs, her career in front of the still photographer’s camera has spanned more than 40 years.
An exceptionally fine and intelligent actress, her recent triumphs have included François Ozon’s acclaimed Swimming Pool (2003), Dominik Moll’s psychological thriller Lemming (2005) and she is soon to be seen in the lead of Fred Schepisi’s The Eye of The Storm (2010). She holds the Office of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), has an Honorary César from the French Academy of Cinema and has served on the Jury of the Cannes Film Festival. Charlotte Rampling embodies a lifetime of achievement and style. We travel to Paris to meet her.
November in Paris is the month when the world of photography descends on the city. Paris Photo, the most important photography fair in the world, crowds the basement of the Louvre, while the Fondation Cartier-Bresson, the Prix Pictet and the Musée du Montparnasse overflow with the world’s most prestigious photographers and every tiny gallery shows somebody known or somebody new. It is almost an inevitability that a photograph of Charlotte Rampling by Jeanloup Sieff or Helmut Newton will sit within the legendary black and white images of the ‘60s, ‘70s or ‘80s – and of course it does.
November in Paris is also a sombre month. The flush of yellows and russets is over, the sky is a leaden grey and it rains a lot, a mist hangs over the river, it’s dark at 4pm and the chill damp of the Seine spreads beyond its banks and bites at hands and cheeks. It was just such a day when the photographer Thomas Zanon-Larcher and I met with Charlotte Rampling at 155 rue St Martin, the Paris Headquarters of Yohji Yamamoto in Le Marais. It will soon be the 30th anniversary of Yohji’s arrival in Europe and so thoughts have turned to the ideal Yohji woman – for not every woman can wear the ascetic work of this radical designer. Charlotte Rampling can.
She arrives at this beautiful 18th century house dressed in black trousers and jacket, white shirt and flat black shoes; tall, slim and understated. She fits into this effortlessly graceful interior which is a classical structure but also starkly modern, with contemporary stone, slate and concrete, minimal interventions sitting alongside warm, original, uneven wood floors and period spiral staircases. Rampling conveys the same complex qualities. She is immediately warm, open and has an easy grace; her bright turquoise-blue eyes shock with their intensity. The environment, the location and the presence of Rampling are all of a piece.
The question arises as to how we should work. We have the building – the cool tall elegance of the show room spaces and the dark warmth of leather chairs and velvet swamped sofas of Yamamoto’s private space. We have catwalk pieces from the Yamamoto archive. We talk about Rampling’s most recent film, still in post production. She has seen some clips and is pleased. The film is an adaptation of Australian and Nobel Laureate writer, Patrick White’s book, The Eye of The Storm. It is the story of the return of a man (a prodigal son) to see his dying mother, matriarch Elizabeth Hunter, played by Rampling. Rampling spent four months living in Melbourne, Sydney and Northern Queensland, “I hated it,” she exclaims, “the place, boring and shallow. I missed the culture of Europe.” And on shooting with Judy Davis and Geoffrey Rush who play her children, “brilliant and wonderful to work with”.
In a Sydney suburb, two nurses, a housekeeper and a solicitor attend to Elizabeth Hunter as her expatriate son and daughter convene at her deathbed. In dying, as in living, Mrs Hunter remains a formidable force on those around her. It is via Mrs Hunter’s authority over living that her household and children vicariously face death and struggle to give consequence to life. Estranged from a mother who was never capable of loving them, for the first time in their lives the meaning of compassion takes the children by surprise. During a ferocious storm Mrs. Hunter finally dies, not through a withdrawal of will but by an assertion of it. Standing on a beach, she is calm and serene as devastation surrounds her. “It was a terrifying scene to play, it was hard for me and frightening as this incredible storm raged around me.”
It is not difficult to see why Schepisi cast Rampling and yet I’m consistently startled. I can’t imagine how Charlotte Rampling could be the mother of Rush or Davis, but of course she can. Something about those early images invades my perception, even though I am in the presence of someone who is no longer a 30 year old and who is so completely at ease with herself.
The talk of Melbourne and the work of Patrick White, the mood of the space and the sense of Paris on this bleak November day conspire to unlock the way we will proceed. One of White’s most extraordinary novels and most deeply felt, The Twyborn Affair, recounts in part the loneliness of a Madam in a brothel in postwar London. In this late work, White squarely confronts the questions of identity – sexual and otherwise – that long preoccupied him; a preoccupation which seems also to fascinate Yamamoto, while Rampling radiates a rich ambiguity. White captures the character’s stillness, her moments of reflection, her quiet, her fatigue and this is what we set out to find in Rampling’s performance. We imagined together this woman’s day, her watching, her thinking, her solitude, her isolation. Not once does Rampling seek to be glamourised.
We are assisted in dressing her by the wonderful Irene Silvagni, the Creative Director of Yohji Yamamoto for more than 20 years, the great grand-niece of Trotsky, and someone who will not see 65 again. She is an intimate of Rampling’s and they are hilarious together; whooping with laughter at the impact of the passage of years, gossiping mercilessly about who has done what to mask time, and with pride as they have both risen above such preoccupations and eschewed the so-called benefits of surgery. In these moments, the woman who has been caught by the brilliant flash of Juergen Teller’s camera, in all sorts of ironic poses and situations, is palpably present in the room. This is a woman who retains her daring, her sense of fun and who is at home in her own skin. She laughs, “My legs are terrific. So were my mother’s and father’s. It’s genetic.” And they really are terrific!
As we work, an indefinable magic takes over. It springs from an inner spirit of the clothes and something that is within Rampling herself. She has a serious beauty, which finds its expression in the work of Yamamoto. She has an aura of secrecy or privacy which bubbles up subliminally and which gives the sensual charge and enigmatic edge to her iconic presence. These qualities also lie deep within the work of Yamamoto.
The cut and movement of a dress or coat and the sexually androgynous feel of the clothes mask what is obvious but suggest all that will be revealed as the dress drops to the floor. Springing from an eastern aesthetic, the mind turns to the kimono, its folds and pleats and wrappings and windings and the process and time it takes to unveil, reveal and disclose … somehow, Rampling too embodies this. One imagines her depths and the time needed to know her and, thinking back to the early images, one remembers how she turns away from the camera, how her look is often a sidelong glance, and that there is an essential inscrutability that keeps over-familiar access at bay. It is clear that Rampling epitomises the Yohji woman – the clothes, designer, icon, place (and city too) are at one.
There is a phrase in French – souffles d’ardoise – which translates as breath of slate. It expresses the complex notion of this especially warm and tactile, blue- black stone. Slate, when it is rough hewn, has valleys, crests and creases. When it is wet, and fine strong Japanese paper is pressed on its surface, the stone releases its architecture, imprinting it on the paper, leaving just the breath of the slate on the paper’s surface.
It is in its breath that the essence of the slate is revealed. Rampling has this deep, elusive quality, a quality which is delicate, warm, and fragile but has architecture, form and structure. It is a quality which holds its secrets close. As she leaves, she shares particularly with Irene, “I love days like this. It’s wonderful to feel the creative juices run. It makes you feel so alive, to remember the feeling. What else would I do?”
by Jules Wright
All photographs by Thomas Zanon-Larcher
Taken from the Glass archive – issue four, Secret, November 2010

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Director at The Wapping Project

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