Charlotte Rampling: “I’m now the wise woman”

The suicide of her sister aged 23 didn’t catch up with Charlotte Rampling until her 40s when depression set in and she disappeared from view. Now, the actress tells Liz Thomson, she has found a way through it...

France has been Charlotte Rampling’s home for 40 years. In her duplex in Paris’ 16th arrondissement there are high ceilings and paintings everywhere, hanging and leaning. A small black-and-white TV is tuned permanently to a classic movie channel, the sound off. Classical music plays in the background.

She moved here in 2002 with her long-time companion, Jean-Noel Tassez, who died in 2015. Following Tassez’s death, she had thought it would be too difficult to remain alone in the apartment. Instead she discovered that the rituals of death – a “good” funeral – make it possible to integrate the past with a new present.

“The funeral was amazing,” she says. “My sons looked after everything and we chose all these incredible things and a huge number of people came.

And something happens, something that will live in you afterwards. What I found out, which was very positive, is that you’re accompanied for a very long time by your dead friends and dead loves, which I’d never had before. It’s been the most amazing companionship. Eventually you feel them go… Then it’s about getting back into the land of the living. It is just that. I do know, now, about grieving.”

Charlotte Rampling in The Night Porter, 1974

Rampling has never made any secret of the darkness that enveloped her 40s when she all but disappeared from view. What was a secret until not so many years ago was the reason for it: the death, at 23, of her beloved elder sister Sarah, who shot herself in her home far away in the Argentine pampas, her premature son not yet home from hospital. Their father decided the true story was too awful to be told so having taken the call from his cattle-rancher son-in-law he told his wife, and Charlotte, that Sarah had died of a brain haemorrhage. The fiction was easier to maintain in the unwired 1960s but two years later Rampling learned the truth. By then a stroke had almost totally incapacitated her mother and when she confronted her father it was agreed the truth must remain unspoken. You don’t need great psychological insight to link Rampling’s unresolved grief for her sister with her breakdown.

“It’s like post-traumatic stress. You go on for ages. You haven’t seen anything. Someone has just disappeared. And they’re not going to come back. Apparently.”

Sarah (left) and Charlotte Rampling.

The story of Sarah’s short life, and death, are told in Rampling’s memoir, Who I Am, its emphatic title an acknowledgment, if one were needed, that a single event, on Valentine’s Day 1967, shaped her life. The book is slight, just 109 pages, yet paradoxically heavy, “a walk in the wilderness”, the ultimate unburdening.

I have friends but I think they’re going to disappear so I don’t contact them

It is also the story of a happy if rootless childhood in an Army family where friends were necessarily transient and the little girls were thrown back on their own company. Rampling remembers a brief period in Fontainebleau, when she and Sarah – always somehow frail, “my big little sister” – played in the nearby forest for hours and hours with their real-life dog and imaginary ponies. “You just get on with it,” she reflects, “but even now I don’t keep friends. I have friends but I think they’re going to disappear so I don’t contact them and then I don’t have to worry about it.”

Her father – who’d taken gold in Hitler’s notorious 1936 Olympics, appearing in Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia – told his surviving daughter to “go out and live your life”. Her star quality had already been spotted: she’d made her screen debut in The Knack and played a lead in Rotten to the Core. “He said, I will be there for your mother.”

Charlotte Rampling and Alan Bates in Georgy Girl, 1966

Georgy Girl made her a star in Swinging London. She was a hot chick who hung out with The Beatles at the Ad Lib club and knew Jimi Hendrix (“the sweetest man, so kind, so sensitive, so fragile”) but the druggy scene wasn’t for her. LSD was “exhausting”, eight hours of “heaving and vomiting. Besides, I had my survival trip. I had to survive!” She laughs grimly.

By decade’s end, Rampling was in Italy, and embarked on a series of films that cemented her reputation, including The Damned and The Night Porter, both with Dirk Bogarde, who was mesmerised by her “jade gaze”. She came to France at 30. In her 40s the inevitable happened. “I couldn’t cope with having to cope. That’s what depression is. You lose it. Literally. Everything stops.” Like most people in such situations, she encountered wariness (“people don’t want sadness around them, they don’t want people going in to a funk”) and incomprehension. “What have you got to be depressed about is always the question. I used to think I’d rather be anybody – anybody – than what I’m going through now. Any disease, any poverty, just anything. It’s a non-life because you don’t have any life at all.”

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How she beat it she won’t say, only that “it’s a slow, slow process and it’s saying to yourself I’m going to come out of it. Because if you’re not strong enough to say that you’re not going to come out of it. You’ve got to get up every morning and say I’m going to get through this day. I’m going to get through my life. I’m not going to…” She pauses. “Sarah gave me something in a sense because I wasn’t going to do what she’d done. I was not going to put my parents through that. I could be gone but I’m not going to put my parents through what I’ve seen happen to them because of Sarah. I said: Sarah, I can’t do that, can I? You just forge your way.”

Charlotte Ramping in The Damned, 1969.

Was there a sense in which Rampling felt she had to live for both of them? “Yes, I suppose there was a bit of that, although I’ve never thought of it.”

After her mother died in 2001, Rampling was able to grieve with her father, to discuss the horror they’d been through. “He wasn’t driven mad. My father in a sense became another person. He came to be able to love because he’d said he couldn’t love – he didn’t know how, he’d never had an example.”

The past 15 years have seen a rebirth. She was a muse to François Ozon, with whom she made four films, and in addition to screen work there’s been TV series such as Dexter, London Spy and Broadchurch. The Sense of an Ending is poised to open and two further films are in the can, a spy thriller, The Red Sparrow, with Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Irons, and The Whale, which she describes as “a portrait of a woman”, written and directed by Andrea Pallaoro.

“I’m working well now because I can,” Rampling concludes. “Before I couldn’t. If good stuff comes up and it corresponds with what I feel I want to do, that’s fantastic. There’s a lot that’s of interest. There’s obviously not the great lead roles because they’re for younger women. I’m now the wise woman.”

Who I Am by Charlotte Rampling (Icon Books, £12.99)