I arrive at La Méditerranée, a traditional fish restaurant in a literary quarter of the Left Bank, Paris, at 7pm to find its blue doors firmly bolted. Charlotte Rampling has just confirmed our reservation, but our dining slot appears to have fallen foul of that particularly French timetable that decrees that no civilised person would ever want to eat before 8pm.
In a panic, I bang on the door, whereupon I am met by a man who wordlessly ushers me towards a white-clothed table in the central dining area, and then disappears. I sit on a velvet-cushioned seat and admire the space. Serving sole meunière and classic dishes to the Parisian glitterati since 1942, the restaurant is a fading shrine to the city’s golden age: its spidery graphic logo was designed by the writer and film-maker Jean Cocteau, while its dining-room murals, depicting Grecian goddesses in pastel robes, are the work of Christian Bérard, the artist and fashion illustrator who once dazzled the theatrical demi-monde.
The decor provides limited distraction. Thankfully, the rather crushing silence is disturbed by a rap on the window. Charlotte Rampling is here. The arrival of the 71-year-old actress, a slight but elegant figure in a sweeping trenchcoat, slim-fitting grey suit and white jersey top, finally prompts the attentions of a waiter. She sits down and offers me a courteous handshake. “I think we must have two glasses of your very good vin rouge,” she says in that unmistakably seductive timbre that seems to register about three octaves lower than normal people’s voices.
Rampling is a local. She keeps a flat just up the road on Rue Monsieur-le-Prince. “On ze Left Bank,” she says with a silly French accent. “I have other places, don’t worry,” she adds. “But I won’t tell you where because it sounds a bit show-offy for an article in the Financial Times.” A mutual friend later tells me that Rampling does indeed have several homes here which she inhabits on different days of the week because she likes to enjoy the city from different aspects and elevations. One of them, he adds, contains a room filled with her portraits: she calls it her ego room.
I don’t blame her. There exist many, many portraits of Rampling, and most of them depict a woman of quite staggering beauty. She first arrived on screen as a nubile dolly bird of 1960s counterculture in Richard Lester’s The Knack . . . and How to Get It, before gaining international notoriety as the sadomasochistic Holocaust survivor Lucia Atherton in The Night Porter. Artists and directors have been captivated by her cool-eyed self-possession and sphinx-like allure. For the photographer Helmut Newton, she became a lacquer-lipped siren of 1970s sensuality. More latterly she posed nude at the Louvre for Juergen Teller. Film-goers can currently see her as Veronica Ford in an adaptation of Julian Barnes’s 2011 novel The Sense of an Ending. The film’s great tragedy is that no filter on earth can possibly overcome the fact the actress playing the younger Veronica makes a pathetic substitute for the younger Rampling.
“And what would we like to eat?” Rampling offers the menu a cursory glance and then asks the waiter to recommend something. They discuss fish in French for a few minutes while I scrutinise her face. The eyes have become more hooded and melancholy with age, but the fabled cheekbones are razor sharp and she still has a youthfully lithe physique. She decides on the scallops. “Let’s have that, shall we?” she says. “I like scallops.”
The actress didn’t intend to stay in Paris. She made it her home in 1978, when she married the French composer Jean-Michel Jarre. They divorced in 2002, but she stayed on throughout her long relationship with Jean-Noël Tassez, the French communications tycoon, until his death in 2015. In a career that has straddled the French and British film industries with consummate ease, the matter of Rampling’s domicility has continued to fox her fans. Look her up on Google and the first question asked is: “Is Charlotte Rampling French?” In fact, she grew up in Sturmer, Essex, the second daughter of a painter, Isabel Gurteen, and Godfrey Lionel Rampling, an army officer who led the house with regimental efficiency and won a gold medal in the 4x400m relay in the 1936 Olympics.
“I’m happiest here, but I work a lot in England, and yes . . . England is me,” she concedes, “though not necessarily London. When my companion died I asked myself, should I go back now? But I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to at all. It’s not home. Both my sons live in London. But I’ve made my space here. I’ve made my place here.”
She picks at an olive, ignoring the bread basket before her. “Where is home for people?” she continues. “Home is where the heart is, they say, or home is where your dogs are . . . Home to me, I thought, was where your partner is, or your loved one is, so when he died I thought, well, better think about moving. But actually it’s very difficult to shift a home. I’ve lived here for 16 years. So no change, I’m still here.”
Our scallops arrive, dotted along two neat lines of an asparagus sauce in a very nouvelle cuisine arrangement that makes me sorry I didn’t order more. Rampling, on the other hand, seems satisfied. “I have to think of my figure,” she says when I ask about her diet. Does she eat dessert? “No, I don’t, my love. I do not.” She describes her attitude towards food as watchful, “but not stupidly so. We must realise that we do not need big portions,” she says in a rather stern, headmistressy way. “We do not need much to survive on, so if we could just . . . eat half your fish, not all of it, and half your potatoes, not all of them.”
Rampling is sanguine about the passing of time and the unkindnesses it has visited upon her. “I have a kind mirror that’s nice to me, that’s very important,” she says. “But I don’t look in other mirrors. I sometimes have to but I don’t catch myself in a glimpse. I did that once.” What did she see? “Some bad-tempered old bag,” she laughs, “whereas I’d seen myself as a goddess. Ooh, la la!”
It’s not just mirrors she has a low tolerance for. “I’m not social,” she says, before clarifying. “I’m not antisocial, but I’m not social. I’m just not that bird.” Neither is she especially good in her own company. “I’m completely hopeless on my own,” she says. “I’ve now discovered what it’s like living alone; I’d never done it in my life. And I’m not getting on very well at all.”
She’s also deleted all discussion of current affairs from her life. “I have actively stopped listening to the news because I don’t want it getting into my psyche, into my mind,” she says. As “a European”, she voted to remain in the Brexit referendum. “I voted to stay in, obviously. I mean, for God’s sake, what are they doing, going out?” But that’s all she’ll say. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she says. “I don’t want to listen to Trump any more. I don’t want to listen to French politics any more. So, I’m waiting. ”
She claims ignorance has made her “much happier”, and I’m inclined to think she has a point. Besides, she’s always had work to occupy her. The past few years have been some of Rampling’s most productive: she was quietly commanding as the barrister Jocelyn Knight in Broadchurch, and played the confidante of a serial killer in the US thriller Dexter. She was extraordinary as Kate Mercer in Andrew Haigh’s award-winning film 45 Years, a forlorn figure of icy impotence, trapped in the dismal charade of a happy marriage. And she’s just finished working on a “big American film” with the actress Jennifer Lawrence. “I am a matron. I have this school for spies and we all absolutely speak with Russian accents, as if we are Russian, even though we are all English-speaking. It’s hilarious fun, I loved it.”
These days she’s as likely to take on funny, adventurous roles as she is the difficult characters on which she has built a career. And she approaches them all with a fearless enthusiasm. For Rampling, acting has always served as a means of self-preservation. “I’ll do anything not to go there,” she says of the opportunity to escape her own head. “Because it’s only a story. You don’t have to be responsible for it. So you have this extraordinary outlet that you can say, well, if it’s just telling stories then I can actually do anything, can’t I?”
This attitude is the byproduct of a childhood characterised by a stiff-upper-lipped style of English parenting that buried its family trauma. In 1966, Rampling’s comfortable yet very conservative home life was devastated by news of her 23-year-old sister’s death. Rampling was 20 and on the brink of international fame. Her subsequent discovery that her sister’s death was a suicide was kept secret, at the insistence of her father, until after her mother’s death. But the burden of that deception, and the horror of her own personal grief, has coloured most of her professional choices ever since.
“The one saviour for me, was to be as instinctive as possible,” she says of her reaction to her sister’s death. To keep her feelings to herself seemed perfectly normal: the 1960s were a period of tremendous freedom, but the world in which a prince might speak openly about the benefits of grief counselling was still light years away. “And so, from that moment, my life became about not thinking,” she explains. “To really go for it. Kamikaze-style. As with any kind of trauma; you have to find ways. If I start to overthink things then I get in an awful mess.”
It’s only recently that Rampling has relaxed her grip on her own story. Last month she published Who I Am, a memoir co-written with the novelist Christophe Bataille, that attempts to reconcile some of her feelings about Sarah’s death. As a work of literature, it’s completely unstructured, a fragmentary collection of stumbling conversations between herself and the author, segments written in Charlotte’s own words, and passages written by the author, and it would seem deeply pretentious were it not for its painful moments of candour. Sarah, her “big little sister” hovers over its pages like a beautiful spectre, a golden-headed playmate whose smile slowly becomes “opaque and distracted” as the inexorable descent into depression consumes her.
That the book was even released is surprising. The last biography Rampling authorised was later squashed when she realised she “had made a terrible mistake”. Why? “Because the writing was just crap,” she says. “I said: ‘Do I want my life to be turned into crap? No.’ ” There followed various legal procedures to prevent its publication. “It was a very complicated case to get out of,” says Rampling. “But it was a good thing to do.”
Rampling’s temperament can be hard to get a handle on. She is forthcoming, very funny and quite direct. She credits her more fearsome characteristics to her father. “He was very fair,” she says. “And as I got a bit older I saw that he was a really good man. But people were a bit frightened of him, like they’re a bit frightened of me because I have a fierce side that seems to come out.”
I wonder why people find her frightening. “I don’t know,” she shrugs. “I intimidate people. Did I intimidate you, my dear?” she leers. Well, yes, a little, as it happens. Was she a very scary little girl? “No!” she insists. “But I think it comes from not knowing how to be as you’re growing up. It’s a form of shyness that then gets misinterpreted; probably something like that. And then it can be very useful so you hang on to it.”
That kind of power can be quite intoxicating. Is she the one all the other actors goad to sort things out on set when they don’t like what the director’s doing? “Oh, I have to be the head scout, yes,” she says. “Good old Charlotte troops off . . . ” But she’s not a troublemaker. “I love working with groups,” she says. “The relationships I have are the relationships that I have through working, which are incredibly intense and incredibly intimate. It’s as if all these people are my best friends, and then we all say goodbye and I never see them again.”
Rampling is well aware of her ability to conjure the aura of grande tragédienne. But if she is, she’s a very cheeky one. As dinner winds down, I ask if there are any roles she would still like to play?
“I will know when I have it,” she says, and then feigns a German accent. “Zis is the role I haven’t played yet.” She stops. “I don’t know,” she shrugs. “All these stories are all, in a way, one and the same. But I was thinking, maybe, of doing a Shakespeare,” she continues. “I’m not a Shakespearean actor. I’m not deeply entrenched in the theatre as such. I haven’t trained, I never wanted to do classics. But I have this director saying he would like to investigate Shakespeare. So I don’t know, we’ll see.”
I suggest Beckett, but the idea revolts her. “What could I do in Beckett as a girl?” she asks. Not Happy Days anyway. “Oh, no, please,” she says. “Not the sand. Bob Wilson [the theatre director and playwright] wanted me to do that and I said: ‘No, I don’t want to be buried in that fucking mountain . . . ’ ”
In many ways Rampling is the anti-actor. Happiest when communicating the tiniest of stories with a minimum of gestures. “I don’t like the idea of doing theatrical things,” she says. “It doesn’t suit me, it doesn’t get close to somewhere I want to actually relate to. It’s the same with the Greek tragedies. It’s a bit too much acting-out,” she says. “Although I could probably do it very well. Because I am a tragedian I know I have that in me.”
Also, she would be terrifying. “I would be so scary,” she says gleefully. “I’d say, ‘All right, I’ll fucking give it to you if you want scary. I’ll be there! Carrying my husband’s bleeding arm in my mouth.’ ”
The plates have been cleared but for one sad scallop which sits on Rampling’s plate. I am finishing a second glass of wine. The restaurant is finally beginning to fill with other diners, none of whom bat an eye at the Oscar-nominated actress in their midst. Rampling won’t have dessert. But it now transpires that this watchful dinner has merely been a prelude to another, a dinner party no less, which is taking place just up the road. The minx. The dinner will include no other actors, everything will be served just so, and the conversation will be very academic. It’s part of the French culture she finds both maddening and magical. And it’s what keeps her moored to the city.
She gathers up her bags, and extends her hand towards me for a second handshake. “Well, my dear, I must leave you.” And then she exits, taking her lovely voice and silly accents with her, and leaving me looking at the frescoes and feeling ever so slightly forlorn.
Jo Ellison is the FT’s fashion editor
Illustration by Seb Jarnot