FAMOUSLY PRIVATE ACTOR CHARLOTTE RAMPLING IS BARING HER SOUL – BY REVEALING A LONG-HELD FAMILY SECRET
Legendary actor Charlotte Rampling reveals the shocking secret that nearly tore her family apart.
Charlotte Rampling’s reputation precedes her. Cool, aloof, severe and intimidating are among the adjectives ascribed to her, perhaps partly due to the roles that she’s inhabited. Then again, having lived almost half her life in Paris, it’s possible she’s acquired a touch of that city’s renowned hauteur. The French refer to her simply as “la légende”.
Essentially, Rampling is a private person who’s always resisted full exposure because, “It’s quite a beast, it’s quite devouring,” she has said. “You have to find a way that you’re not invaded all the time by lenses, by people looking.”
She’s pleasantly formal as she welcomes Stellar to her apartment. We shake hands and an unexpected visitor helps break the ice: a red Maine Coon cat glides regally down the curved staircase. We’re privileged – Joe usually avoids strangers. He heads toward the salon, then turns: like Rampling, he has high cheekbones and startling bright eyes.
We follow, and Rampling gestures to a distressed leather Chesterfield. Joe settles on the French balcony from where he can observe us. The room is vast, its herringbone parquet floor dotted with
rugs. There are paintings everywhere, hanging and leaning; a portrait of her and an abstract by her are exiled to the modest study-cum-studio next door. There is a guitar and piano.
Rampling has lived here for 15 years, after moving from Croissy-sur-seine where she and her ex-husband, musician Jean-michel Jarre, brought up their children. It was the home she shared with her fiancé, Jean-noël Tassez, who died just as she completed the film 45 Years in 2015. “The funeral was an extraordinary thing,” she says, reflecting on the importance of ritual. “I came back here and I thought I’d want to leave immediately – but on the contrary. What I found out, which was very positive, is that you’re accompanied for a very long time by your dead friends and your dead loves. It’s been the most amazing companionship. Then eventually you feel them go, because they have to. Afterwards, it’s about getting back to the land of the living. I do know, now, how to grieve.”
Which brings us to her memoir, Who I Am. Its title is emphatic, the style impressionistic – and it was surely cathartic. It’s some years now since her mother died and Rampling was able to reveal the family secret she’d kept with her father: her beloved older sister, Sarah, hadn’t, as they told everyone, died of a brain haemorrhage at 23 – she’d shot herself. As children the sisters were inseparable, inhabiting their own little world – inevitably the solitary new kids on the block in their peripatetic military family life.
As a 21st birthday present, Sarah was given a trip abroad and she went first to America and then to Acapulco, where she met an Argentine cattle rancher. A week later they were married. Three years later, in 1967, she shot herself, her premature son still in hospital. At the moment of her death, both Rampling, who’d awoken with a start, and her mother had weird premonitions. When Rampling arrived home to be met at the gate by her father, she knew what was coming, though not yet how Sarah had died. That is when the lie took hold: the truth, her father decided, was too awful; it would kill his wife. Rampling learnt it from her brother-in-law three years later, at which point she confronted her father.
“I’ll never know whether it was right or wrong,” she says slowly. “We were all lost in our islands of grief. When I found out [the truth], I felt quite pleased in a way – I could be with [my father], we could help each other.” She agrees it was a terrible secret and ponders the effect of “subterfuge and dissimilation” on their lives. Amid the distress, her mother had a major stroke. “She was so traumatised and shocked, she lost control of her body. That was a manifestation of grief.”
Her father, Godfrey, devoted his life to caring for his incapacitated wife, telling his surviving daughter, “Go out and live your life.” Her star quality had already been spotted: she’d been a water skier in the film The Knack… And How To Get It and played a lead role in Rotten To The Core.
For her part, Rampling repressed her emotions: “I didn’t think about it.” Instead, she worked. Georgy Girl made her a star in Swinging London, “part of a group of young people who were all doing exactly what they wanted – dressing up in incredible gear, opening shops, taking photos, making incredible music”. She hung out with The Beatles and knew Jimi Hendrix (“the sweetest man, so kind, so fragile, so sensitive”), but one trip showed her LSD wasn’t for her. “LSD was exhausting, eight hours of vomiting… Some people were able to take it every day. Besides, I had my survival trip!” she laughs grimly.
At the end of the ’60s, Rampling was in Italy and embarked on a series of films, including The Damned and The Night Porter, both with Dirk Bogarde, who was mesmerised by her “jade gaze”. “My Italian days were fantastic,” she tells Stellar. She moved to France at 30, combining movies with motherhood, but in her forties the “tsunami” of unspoken grief hit in the form of severe depression. “I couldn’t cope with having to cope. That’s what depression is. You lose it. Literally. Everything stops.”
For 10 years she kept a relatively low profile. Like many people with depression, Rampling encountered incomprehension and fear in friends and colleagues, and lived “a non-life”. Recovery, she says, is “a slow, slow process. It’s saying to yourself, ‘I’ll come out of it.’ Because if you’re not strong enough to say that, you’re not going to come out of it.” She pauses. “Sarah gave me something, in a sense, because I wasn’t going to do what she did. I wasn’t going to put my parents through that.” She had to live for both of them? “I suppose there’s a bit of that.”
After her mother died in 2001, the bottled-up tragedy could be shared. Rampling spent time with her father, talking about “psychology, philosophy… about what we’d been through”.
The past 15 years have seen a rebirth. She was a muse to director François Ozon, with whom she made four movies, and in addition to film work there have been TV series, such as Dexter, and a touring two-hander show celebrating Sylvia Plath in words and music. She returns to cinemas this month in an all-star version of The Sense Of An Ending, based on the Julian Barnes novel.
“I’m working really well now because I can. 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.”
“You’re accompanied for a very long time by your dead friends and your dead loves”
CHARLOTTE’S WEB (from top) Charlotte Rampling at the beginning of her career in the mid 1960s; as a young girl with her older sister, Sarah.