Two weeks ago, Charlotte Rampling opened the new Cinema Palace in Brussels. She did not come to do that in her role as an actress with an illustrious past, but rather to present Hannah, the intimate, dark film for which she won the award for best actress in Venice. “I don’t know what you do in love, but I give myself completely.”
In 1969, she had a role in the decadent, baroque film The Damned by Luchino Visconti. Charlotte Rampling was already a film star of considerable renown fifty years ago, but it is still too early for a nostalgic retrospective because she is simply too active. Two years ago, the Gallicised British actress received her first Oscar nomination for her superlative performance in the marital drama 45 Years. In September, she beat out stiff competition – Frances McDormand, Sally Hawkins, Julianne Moore, and Jennifer Lawrence – to win the award for best actress at the Venice Film Festival. She won it for the complex, heavy title role in Hannah by Italian director Andrea Pallaoro. Hannah wrestles with almost unbearable desolation when her husband is imprisoned and her son breaks off all contact with her. The 72-year-old Rampling almost never speaks in this oppressive character study, and yet she keeps your eyes riveted to the silver screen because she needs very little to convey Hannah’s intense pain.
It is not specified that Hannah lives in Brussels, but BRUZZ readers will undoubtedly recognize their city. Did you enjoy filming in Brussels?
Charlotte Rampling: I remembered Brussels from years ago. I was here in the 1980s to film Mascara by Patrick Conrad. Filming in Brussels is great fun. There are all kinds of locations here, but I think film directors particularly love the beautiful old houses. And the welcome is always warm and friendly. People here enjoy the fact that their city is being used for a film. This all makes the work much easier.
You inaugurated a new cinema here. Do you think there is a future for cinemas?
Rampling: Yes. It seems like a very brave choice to open a new cinema now, but people can’t live without cinemas. There is nothing better than watching a good film in a beautiful cinema. I still think going to the cinema with some friends or your boyfriend or girlfriend is one of the nicest ways to go out. And I don’t believe in all the doom and gloom predictions. Cinemas are still full of people. Don’t forget that people need ways of going out with their friends and to enjoy life. Going to the cinema can totally change your day, and in rare cases, even your life. I used to go to the cinema very often. Now I go less frequently, but at the end of the film, I almost always promise myself to go every day. But that isn’t really feasible. [Laughs]
The many routine domestic chores in Hannah are somewhat reminiscent of Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles, the film that made the late Chantal Akerman’s reputation. Or is my imagination running away with me?
Rampling: No, not at all. During one of our first conversations about Hannah, Andrea Pallaoro encouraged me to watch Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. I had seen the film when it was released. It gave me chills. It is difficult to comprehend now that the initial reactions were only so-so. There is definitely a bit of Jeanne Dielman in Hannah. And the primary example is the apparently endless repetition of everyday chores.
Is it only thanks to routine that she survives this intensely difficult period?
Rampling: Absolutely. Making food, walking the dog…routine is all Hannah has left. The rest of her life is all gone. If she didn’t have her routine she would break into a thousand pieces. Routine is what helps people survive.
Are you speaking from experience?
Rampling: When I am desperate, uncertain, afraid, or down, I focus on routine chores. There are always things to do at home: the washing up, the ironing, this, and that. It is almost like shock therapy. These chores bring me back to the reality of the moment. They even help when you are suffering and realize full-well that you won’t be freed from that pain instantaneously. I have learned to accept such pain and not to repress it. In situations like that, I keep things simple and work on basic tasks that I can do without having to think about them. They almost become like rituals, and they are more of a need than a therapy. What else can you do? Stay in bed? Stop breathing?
If you will permit me: it can’t be easy to spend weeks inside the head of a depressed, imploding character like that.
Rampling: What attracted me to it? I don’t think there are many actors who dare to accept such a role. In fact, I think that is one of the reasons that they gave me the award at the Venice Film Festival. [Laughs] I am in a minority of people who are prepared to go so far for a character who is really miserable. And it is because it is not unfamiliar to me. I have been in a hole a few times in my life. I recognize that kind of loneliness or suffering. It fascinates me to try and express that in film.
There is a great deal of mystery in your biography Qui je suis, but there are also painfully direct passages about your parents and the death of your sister.
Rampling: How could I do otherwise? I had to write it that way. You could compare it to somebody pulling a scab off a wound, even though that only makes it more painful. Nobody knows why people do that. Some people just do. I can’t stop myself from exploring my life in a process of self-discovery. It is my cross. I am compelled to venture down paths that sometimes go very deep.
Andrea’s film is one of those paths. I had to take that role. Andrea wrote the role for me. Why did he have me in mind? Because he could see what kind of person I am from watching my performances.
Does Hannah continue to haunt you or did you banish her immediately after filming stopped?
Rampling: Fuck off, Hannah? Out the window! [Laughs] No, I couldn’t do that. After filming, it takes a long time to process a character and distance yourself from them.
Hannah is no exception. You often play women to whom life has been very cruel. I am thinking, for example, of Kate from 45 Years or Marie from Sous le sable.
Rampling: I don’t consciously go looking for those roles. I just don’t say no when they are offered to me. I do not look or ask for anything. I don’t make requests or demands of anybody. When I am not filming, I actually have no desire to shoot a film. At the end of the shoot, I usually think: “Perhaps this is my last film.” Until a director contacts me with a subject that interests me or a character that I want to explore. I feel almost obliged to take the role. If I were to refuse, I would die. If I were to refuse such stimuli, I would cease to exist. Can you understand that?
The director of Hannah fell in love with you when he saw you in The Damned by Luchino Visconti when you were fourteen. Do you cherish your past or do you prefer to focus on the future?
Rampling: In the period of The Damned and Visconti, I still thought of directors as father figures, as fathers who want their daughters to be the most beautiful. Now I usually work with men who are much younger than me, so the roles have been reversed. But I still have an enormous desire to please the director. I love my directors.
I have no problems with the past. I think it is wonderful that all those films exist, and that people still derive pleasure from watching some of them. I am proud of my films because I am my films. I am still that little girl in The Damned or in all those other films. I am much older now, but I am still that little girl.
You still recognize yourself in her.
Rampling: I have never wanted to disappear into a character. I do believe in the emotions of characters, but it is me in front of the camera and nobody else. It is not your story, but you are the story. The fact that they don’t call me Charlotte but Hannah, Kate, Sarah, or Marie doesn’t matter. The fact that I wasn’t actually married to Tom Courtenay [her co-star in 45 Years − NR] for 45 years doesn’t matter. It is my body, my wrinkles, my age, my life experience.
For the swimming pool scene in Hannah you were even completely nude.
Rampling: I don’t know what you do in love, but I give myself completely in romantic relationships. And the same is true for film. I do not negotiate about my bottom being in the shot but not my breasts or vice versa. When I commit, I commit completely. With all my heart and not half my heart, because that wouldn’t work.
I have noticed that things go wrong when you don’t commit completely. You amputate the creative process if you constantly want to dispute and debate everything and want to have complete control over how a character should behave. If you object to a nude scene, you have to discuss it beforehand. And I can’t think of any reason why I should have objected to the nude scene in Hannah.
Two years ago, you received your first Oscar nomination for 45 Years. Venice gave you the award for best actress last September. Is it easier for European actresses of a certain age to get good parts than it is for your American colleagues?
Rampling: It might be slightly easier in Europe. But good parts are few and far between in any case. Whether you are young, slightly older, or old, good roles are scarce. But is it fair to complain about that when you do occasionally get good roles and dozens of actors would love to be offered parts like that? You have to keep things in perspective.
How do you mean?
Rampling: Obviously, things do not get easier as you get older. Producers prefer not to work with old actors and for good reason. They don’t attract the same crowds that young people do. Women don’t like to hear things like that but it is true. Older actors retain their appeal slightly longer but older actresses don’t. Why not? It is just the way it is. There is no point protesting reality too forcefully because that is simply the way it is.
Do you not think change is possible?
Rampling: Where should we be heading? The completely equal distribution of all movie parts? I think change is certainly possible but only if women were to write all the scripts, and that is not likely to happen any time soon.
Along with Hannah, you are currently also starring in Red Sparrow, an action film starring Jennifer Lawrence as a deadly spy. How do you deal with the enormous difference between these roles?
Rampling: My part in Red Sparrow is crazy. I play Matron, a cruel manipulator and a genuine predator. I read all the scripts that I am sent. And at the end I usually sigh: “What on earth was that?” But then I read them again. Matron is a fascinating, well-rounded character. Why is she so incredibly cruel? How did she get so good at manipulating people? The glorious thing about an artistic existence, the best thing about my job, is that you create and experience all kinds of different things.