This article, written by the director of Separation, kindly sent in by Ian Hockley (bold emphasis added).
On a chilly March morning this year, I boarded the 6.35 Eurostar bound for Paris. My mission was painless: to meet up with my old friend Charlotte Rampling.
I had already sent her a film script set in the Second World War among members of the French Resistance, which I hope to make with her when and if the money appears. Meanwhile, I wanted to talk her into a very different project.
Earlier that month I had taken a phone call from a new television channel called Cinemoi, whose sole purpose is the transmission in Britain of French movies. The channel particularly wanted, I was told, to make a documentary about Charlotte but, for many reasons, figured she wouldn’t do it. Since I’d known her for a long time, would I mind calling her, and if she was agreeable, go to Paris to shoot the film?
I’ve always loved Paris and the French culture of film-making, receptive to new ideas, experimental and confident, so different from the embedded cultural philistinism and hostility of the English. There Charlotte, who has thrived on its cinematic culture, is almost deified.
Charlotte arranged for us to lunch at La Méditerranée, a cosy restaurant in the Place de L’Odeon. Arriving half an hour early, I elected to sit outside, smoke a cigarette, watch the world go by and wait for Charlotte to appear.
While waiting, my mind wandered back to 1967, the year I first met her. I had just finished making my first feature film, Separation. The picture was invited to represent Britain at an international film festival in Italy. For some reason I flew late at night, then rented a car for the long drive to Sorrento. In the morning I reflected on the paradox of having scrabbled around suburban London, shooting film, which had now led to this moment of stirring Italian coffee on a wisteria-covered balcony overlooking the ocean.
Apparently I had three blissful days ahead of me with nothing to do. My agent, Denis Selinger, joined me. ‘Denis,’ I said, ‘you’ve got lists of anyone and everyone who is here. I want to have lunch with the most beautiful woman in town. Can you fix it?’
Later that morning I descended to the port side far below. In my jacket pocket was a small black and white photograph of my lunch date; an English actress that Denis had picked out. Charlotte Rampling was already there when I pitched up. Sitting across the linen tablecloth from her, at first I didn’t say a word, and neither did she. We looked at each other with intense curiosity, seemingly secure in silence. In that prolonged instant, I knew that I was truly smitten.
Then Charlotte arrived, waking me from my reverie of the past. Time to outline my plans. I’d done a few television profiles before; Salvador Dali, Patricia Highsmith, Werner Herzog, Roald Dahl, Albert Camus. Making films about strangers is one thing, but this time it was to be about Charlotte, my long-standing friend, a much more sensitive situation.
I told her I wanted to make a film of extreme simplicity and to resist my habit of throwing everything but the kitchen sink at it. It was to be based on one long day’s shoot of the two of us in conversation with the cameras running constantly.
Three days later, in the misty early morning beauty of the Jardins de Luxembourg, filming began. Between the trees, silent figures performed the hypnotic, slow motion rituals of Tai Chi, and then in the distance she appeared, walking steadily towards us. Charlotte was dressed in a long dark overcoat against the chill morning air. I noticed how tall and straight she looked, maybe taking after her father, a colonel in the military and an Olympic athlete. I got up from my iron chair and we met at a park bench on converging paths.
She and I had decided in advance to eschew any dialogue about the personal issues that the tabloids had, over the years, pursued so relentlessly. I was nervous and the tension at the beginning of the film shows. I had dreamed at the outset that Charlotte would reveal what makes her tick, but would she, could she?
Back in 1967, my film Separation was to receive an award live on television at the San Carlo Opera House in Naples. Charlotte was coming with me, but on arrival in Naples she felt unwell and decided to stay in the hotel room. She had chosen an elaborate jacket for me to wear, an embroidered Renaissance number that would not have looked out of place at the palace of the Medici.
That night Claudia Cardinale presented me with my prize, a beautiful Silver Mermaid. I held it aloft in salute to an audience whose warmth was unthinkable to the English mind, when all of a sudden a figure in khaki shorts and bush-hat, complete with corks, leapt through the back curtain, seized me by the arm and dragged me off the stage and away from the astonished Cardinale. It was Charlotte’s eccentrically dressed PR man, Theo Cowan. ‘Jack, we’ve got to go! Charlotte’s screaming with pain and hollering for you.’
Our Fiat taxi screeched through street after street and then slithered to an abrupt halt outside our hotel. Charlotte lay in bed covered with a saturated sheet, her face contorted with pain. The doctor, a tall bespectacled figure, gave me instructions for her care. I would have to place ice packs upon her stomach until the pain subsided. What had been wrong with her remained a mystery.
Next day we got an invitation to visit a villa on the Appian Way outside Rome, the temporary home of Roger Vadim and Jane Fonda during the making of Barbarella. With them was the actor Christian Marquand. The house, though grand inside and centuries old, was primitive. A log fire blazed at one end of the main room.
Fonda swept about in a long dress, poured us drinks and was politeness itself, but ill at ease. The two men, Vadim and Marquand, were drinking heavily close to the fire. Then the two of them stood up and squared off to each other. Vadim took the first swing and struck Marquand hard on the side of his head. Marquand repaid the compliment and Vadim staggered slightly. In a test of strength, more violent blows were exchanged without a word.
Fonda had had enough and climbed stone steps to go to bed. Halfway up she turned, bade us goodnight and berated the two pugilists for being idiots, then disappeared. Undeterred, Vadim and Marquand continued to slug it out. Charlotte looked at me: ‘Let’s get out of here.’ The fighters stopped and Vadim yelled out: ‘Hey, you two, why don’t you stay the night?’ I leant for a moment in the archway and yelled back: ‘Go f--- yourself!’
Back in the present, on camera in the restaurant, I raised the subject of The Night Porter, her sensational picture with Dirk Bogarde in the role of her former Nazi guardian in a concentration camp. Obsessed by his captive, he finds expression of his love for her in a display of violence, slapping her about and then attempting to tear off her dress.
When watching this scene, I felt sure that I had seen a flash of confusion cloud Bogarde’s face, as if to say: ‘What on earth am I going to find up here and when I find it, what am I supposed to do with it?’ Charlotte’s face creased into a big smile: ‘He probably was confused… poor bugger!’
As we cracked up, she pointed to the heavens: ‘Sorry Dirk, just having a bit of fun.’ I already knew that Bogarde had hit her for real in the scene, and also that that kind of physical violence is very hard to simulate; none the less, I found the idea disturbing. ‘I can’t imagine you liking violence,’ I said.
‘No, not at all, I’m terrified of violence. But at the same time,’ she went on, ‘I’m very violent.’
Something went ping in my head. ‘You don’t mean knocking people about?’
‘No, of course not.’
‘You mean emotional violence?’
‘I mean emotional violence.’
‘And when did you last use that?’ I asked.
Again the gorgeous smile, and then the mild rebuke: ‘Jamais dans la vie, monsieur, only in the movies, and there’s a lot of it to come out.’ This facet of hers combined with the ability to find within herself reflections or aspects of a character she wants to play, no matter how oblique, is what has made her a truly great actress.
When we wrapped the restaurant scene, Charlotte got her old Sixties Mini out of the garage. I had forgotten how tiny these contraptions are. I had to confront how on earth we were to film her as we drove around her beloved Paris.
First we pulled the headrests out of the custom interior. I would sit in the passenger seat, pushed far forward, and hold a camera trained on her with my head jammed against the windscreen. Behind Charlotte would be our sound engineer and behind me, squashed in, was our 6ft 3in cinematographer with a second camera. In front of us, a third camera would give cover from the back of a transit van.
The sheer mad impracticality paid off. As I asked questions, Charlotte responded in a new, invigorated vein, driving frequently with her hands off the wheel. She covered everything from cinema and acting to coping with abandonment, loneliness and the death of loved ones.
She stressed the importance of actually seeing the body of the beloved deceased, otherwise she felt there could be no proper conclusion. This hit home, as I had recently failed to see the dead body of my own mother and practically fainted when the box appeared in a car.
As Charlotte negotiated the traffic, I could not help but notice the intricately made and obviously very expensive leather jacked she was wearing, and so blurted out the question: ‘How much did you pay for that jacket?’
She looked at me in amazement. ‘Gawd!’ she said, and threw me a look that seemed to say, ‘How low can you get?’
‘Countless amounts?’ I persisted.
She deflected me deftly by breaking into song with a rendition of How Much is that Doggy in the Window? followed by, amid laughter, Sing a Song of Sixpence. ‘Then along came a blackbird and pecked off her nose.’ At this point she reached out and grabbed hold of my very own hooter. ‘You haven’t got a nose any more, Jack,’ she said, ‘it’s been pecked orff!’
Our next location was on the Pont des Arts, the romantic footbridge over the Seine. By now I sensed that the shoot was descending into a state of near anarchy.
The scene began with me waiting for Charlotte, staring out across the River Seine to the Isle St Louis, which looked like a Christmas cake in the golden light of the setting sun. Charlotte arrived on cue. ‘I get the feeling that you’re following me,’ she said.
‘I am following you,’ I said. ‘I’ve been looking out at that beautiful island. I’d love to live there.’
‘Are you rich Jack?’
‘Well, you can’t live there, Jack.’
I looked at my watch and turned to Charlotte. ‘It’s 10 to six and I’ve completely forgotten what we were going to talk about!’
‘We were going to talk about French cinema,’ she explained, as if to a four year-old. ‘But of course, Jack, anything could happen, a conversation, an image of interest.’
At precisely this moment, as if by magic, a tall Japanese photographer leapt onto the bridge, closely followed by his model, an exquisite Japanese girl, dressed in a glistening, white, bridal gown. To our delight they embarked on a spectacular photo-shoot, all caught on our cameras.
As Charlotte and I strolled on down the bridge, I gave her the traditional DVD quiz. If trapped on a desert island and you could only take six films, what would they be?
Her choices were: Citizen Kane, Apocalypse Now, Les Enfants du Paradis, Death in Venice and finally, her own film, Under the Sand. I didn’t notice at the time that she had only nominated five movies, but this had been a very long day and we were all exhausted.
‘I’ve got one more question for you,’ I said. ‘What are you doing for dinner tonight?’
‘Well,’ she smiled, ‘it’s funny you should ask me that because I haven’t got a date.’
Over the course of the day I was bowled over by the things Charlotte had to say and fell to wondering: had I ever known who she really was? When I mentioned this to her several weeks later, she said: ‘Don’t be hard on yourself, that’s just the experience talking. I’m still the girl you met.’
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