A book by the actress Charlotte Rampling is strange in more ways than one. TP O’Mahony finds it to be a strange hybrid — neither an autobiography nor a memoir, but a collection of memories and musings.
HER starring role in two films — The Night Porter (1974) and Swimming Pool (2003) — has cemented Charlotte Rampling’s place in cinematic history.
In between there have been many other acclaimed roles of course for the English-born actress who is now 71, but her performances in these two controversial films stand out.
Her other best known roles include Stardust Memories with Woody Allen in 1980, and co-starring opposite Paul Newman in The Verdict in 1984. Her role in After 45 in 2015 won her a Best Actress nomination for the Academy Awards. More recently, she featured in the five-part drama series London Spy that aired on BBC Two.
Back in 1977, I interviewed her for the Evening Press in the bar of the old terminal building at Cork Airport during a break in shooting a scene for The Purple Taxi, based on a French novel by Michel Déon and co-starring Peter Ustinov. The scene depicted her coming off an Aer Lingus flight into Cork before departing for a remote cottage in west Cork.
It required several takes and it was during an interval between these that we talked. I noted her air of hauteur which led to her often being described as an “ice queen”. But it was just that — an “air”; in fact, she was exceptionally nice and extremely patient.
Now she has given us a strange hybrid of a book — neither an autobiography nor a memoir, but a collection of memories and musings. Entitled Who I Am, it is quite short and, strangest of all, it mentions none of her films. It is, after all, only in and through the films that the public know her.
Admittedly, the book is about her early life, but it is still disappointing that she doesn’t reference any of the films that established her international reputation.
The book was first published in French (Charlotte lives in Paris) and was written in collaboration with Christophe Bataille, a novelist. Right at the beginning of a book in which she comes across as insightful and very intelligent, but also as elusive and even mysterious, Charlotte tells us it is “not a biography, or a song, or a betrayal, barely a novel — let’s say a ballad, one of those ones you hum, like ‘The Ballad of the Ladies of Times Past’.”
Okay, let’s say a ballad — and it is one that is permeated by the spirit of her older sister Sarah, who died far away from home and in tragic circumstances. The two were very close, and the (partial) story that emerges from these pages is as much Sarah’s as it is Charlotte’s.
“I want to tell our story,” the author declares, halfway through the book.
For Charlotte and her sister, being young in London was heavenly.
“The Blitz was a thing of the past. No more tears and deprivation. We were alive. Who wouldn’t want to walk joyously down the King’s Road in a miniskirt in the ’60s? Who wouldn’t want to devote their life to the movies? To photographers? I was, and I still am, that woman.”
But Sarah, though nearly three years older, needed looking after. Charlotte tells us she remained fragile all her life, “like a flower that is not truly meant for this world”.
When she turned 21, her parents gave her a first big trip abroad. With a girlfriend, she left London for New York, and ended up in Acapulco. Charlotte takes up the story: “This is where you met Carlos. A handsome, older man. A rich Argentinian cattle rancher, a man of experience. And then you did something very strange, Sarah. Without saying anything to anyone, a week after meeting him, you married him. I read about it in a newspaper in London. My mother was frantic. She couldn’t bear the thought of Sarah being so far away.”
Three years after the marriage, Sarah was dead.
She killed herself on February 14, 1967, after having given birth prematurely to a baby boy on January 13 in a hospital in Buenos Aires.
Charlotte tells us she only found out the truth about the circumstances three years after Sarah’s death. “When I asked my father why he had kept such a secret, he said, ‘It would kill your mother if she knew’.”
For the Ramplings, there was no body, no funeral. When the family in London first heard of her death, she had already been buried. Because of the heat, they were told. “All I know is that Sarah has lain in her husband’s family vault since February 1967. For some reason I still cannot explain, I have never been to Argentina.”
Her father, Godfrey, who would become a colonel in the Royal Artillery, won gold in the relay at the Berlin Olympics in 1936. When her mother’s brother brought Godfrey home to the Victorian manor house near Cambridge, where Charlotte would be born, he was just 20 and already training for the Olympics.
“In a startling coup de foudre, my mother realises that the man standing there, a stiff figure in his military uniform, will be the love of her life. She is just 12.”
After the war, Charlotte’s father was broke. “He tried to sell his gold medal or have it melted down. He went to a jeweller’s in London and discovered it was made of steel. Hitler had tricked the athletes, palmed them off with fakes. It mattered and it didn’t matter to my father, who was engaged in a desperate quest which took him far beyond.”
It is what’s left unsaid or omitted that is most disappointing about this book; the narrative is fractured, disjointed and episodic, often conveying impressions, but little else.
On the back cover there is a photograph of the author at her most alluring, over this question: “Who Is Charlotte Rampling?”
After 106 pages, the reader can only give a very incomplete answer to that. There is much more to be said by and about Charlotte Rampling, and much more to be learned.
Who I Am
Icon Books, £12.99
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