- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 18, 2001

Actress Charlotte Rampling finally is available to pick up a phone in her apartment at the Westminster Hotel in Paris after a few false starts. She has agreed to discuss the role that appears to have rejuvenated and elevated her career, that of widowed literature professor Marie Drillon in the French psychological drama "Under the Sand."
In the movie, directed by a 34-year-old virtuoso named Francois Ozon, Miss Rampling's character is reluctant to admit that her husband, Jean, may not return after an unexplained disappearance during a seacoast vacation.
Miss Rampling, 55, has been been able to savor the popularity of "Under the Sand" since last February in France, where she has lived since the early 1970s, when she and her first husband, Bryan Southcombe, took refuge across the English Channel as tax exiles. "I feel there's a lot of love and appreciation around," she comments, "so you go with that."
She likes the French schedule for making movies. "The hours are easier than American hours, that's for sure," she says. "As a rule, you start filming at noon and go through till 7:30 in the evening. The artists and crew have their lunch at 11 in the morning. You'd have to make up before, of course. But I like this system. It's quite civilized, really actually."
She explains that her current project has made it uniquely practical to reside at the hotel. "It's a principal location as well," she says. "This group of people in the story are staying at the Westminster. So we're here, and we're on the beach, and we're doing other things. It's a comedy, though not a funny-funny comedy, directed by a well-known actor and director here, Michel Blanc. Our movie would be translated as 'See How They Dance.' It comes from a little folk song familiar to young people, though not quite a children's song per se."
Born in Sturmer, England, Miss Rampling spent part of her youth in France. Her father was a colonel stationed at NATO headquarters in Fontainebleau. Between the ages of 9 and 12, she and an older sister, Sarah, were educated at a school in Versailles, the Joan of Arc Academy for Girls. Her father "thought it was a good idea to send us to a French school," the actress says.
Miss Rampling's French language skills eroded somewhat when the family returned to England, but less than she feared when she began pursuing a separate movie career in France. "At the age we were exposed to French on a daily basis, it really sunk in," she says. "I have a very slight accent, not pronounced, but definitely perceptible to French people. Fortunately, they like accents, as long as they're intelligible."
Miss Rampling first attracted attention on the screen as a willowy, fine-boned, pale-orbed starlet in Richard Lester's "The Knack and How to Get It" and Silvio Narizzano's "Georgy Girl" in the middle 1960s. Only Julie Christie was a more exploitable emblem of "swinging London" at the time. Recruited for the movies from a modeling job, Miss Rampling made some effort to catch up with formal training at the Royal Court Theatre in London.
"I hadn't trained before," she explains, "and being English, I thought it was something I should do. The rest you learn as you go along. I'm not a theater actress. There's no reason I wouldn't do theater, but it is another form and requires special training of its own. Facility with the movies and theater don't necessarily go together."
The incentive to continue as a coltish sex symbol vanished when her sister died in 1967 of a brain hemorrhage. In the aftermath, Miss Rampling became more susceptible to morbid period pieces, notably Luchino Visconti's "The Damned" in 1969 and Liliana Cavani's "The Night Porter" in 1974. They both were preoccupied with Nazi-era vice and corruption.
Miss Rampling remained an occasional muse for both English and American directors, notably John Boorman in the science-fiction howler "Zardoz," Woody Allen in the Felliniesque movie-world satire "Stardust Memories" and Sidney Lumet in the courtroom melodrama "The Verdict."
While splitting time between Paris and London, where she always maintained a separate residence, Miss Rampling began acting in French-language pictures. Her first marriage ended in 1974 when she fell in love with composer Jean-Michel Jarre. The second union ultimately dissolved when Mr. Jarre fell in love with a younger woman. Miss Rampling has adult sons from the marriages.
Mr. Ozon approached Miss Rampling with the idea for "Under the Sand," which looked at one stage as though it would end up as a movie fragment.
"It was something Francois had witnessed," she says. "I think he was about 11. It corresponds to the first sequence of the film. On those same beaches, in fact. A woman had lost her husband. He was haunted by the memory of her distress and the spectacle of people looking for the missing person. A helicopter flying all along the beach to look for signs of a body. All that. So we filmed that first part as a sample, an inducement.
"Then Francois planned to elaborate while also raising the money to complete the film. It was quite an odd way of filming. We stopped for several months. Maybe five or six, I can't recall exactly. But like always, it became 'only a matter of money.' He had trouble selling the idea to backers. They'd ask, 'What could possibly happen to this poor woman to compensate for her grief? How can you make it work?' TV didn't want it, because it sounded like a downer."
While completion hung in the balance, Mr. Ozon continued to flesh out the rest of the story. "He's an unorthdox filmmaker, and he thought it would be compelling to show people how the film begins," Miss Rampling says. It didn't work that way. It never does in life, but it didn't matter. We eventually ended up doing it. Bizarrely, it was the French who stayed way away from it. It was because of my reputation in other countries, and Ozon's reputation as a promising and talented young director, that money came in from Italy and Germany and Japan and other places."
Miss Rampling recommended that Mr. Ozon consult a female writer to help authenticate the woman's point of view. He ultimately consulted a trio of women who share screenwriting credit. It is Miss Rampling's understanding that the key collaborator was Emmanuele Bernheim. She herself preferred to deal only with the director.
"I didn't want to have anything to do with the actual writing," she says. "If things hadn't emerged from the rewriting process, I don't know where we would have stood. But things did emerge. Wonderful things. When we shot the rest of the screenplay, everything was very precise, so in a way, the delays helped. It was almost as if we'd been rehearsing for five months. We hardly had to speak anymore, we knew the story so well. This is also quite unusual. I think it gives the film a certain amount of its power."
Mr. Ozon also consulted "one or two" women who had experienced similar losses "just to know that he was more or less correct about the way Marie was feeling, if 'correct' is the right word to apply to such situations."
Miss Rampling takes a hopeful view of the ambiguous finale, which finds Marie running down a beach. "You can interpret it different ways," she says. "That's what Francois wanted. To me, she's running toward the future, toward the idea that there's another life out there."
Miss Rampling has won praise since the debut of "Under the Sand," though Oscar and Cesar nominations for the 2001 calendar year won't be determined for several months. She was given a career award last winter at the Cesars for 2000. She also rated a cover story in the esteemed periodical Cahiers du Cinema and was invited to host both the opening and the awards ceremony at the Cannes Film Festival.
"We know what our business is about," she says. "When you're really able to touch people in this way, it's something very precious. A great part of the impact is the role itself. That's enhanced to some extent by the little things of appearing in my own face and doing a few nude scenes at the age of 55.
"It's really quite interesting to show people how you look now. There's nothing wrong in that. Things happen at different cycles of your life that can be really attractive and imprint essential things in your face and temperament. I know a lot of women felt quite empowered by this aspect of the movie."
Miss Rampling also came to appreciate the role as an indelible part of herself. "I care always to move on with the times, not stop or advance in extreme ways, but just be in touch with changes in the world and yourself," she says. "Real people and real talent are just real. When I met Francois, I thought, 'Oh, yeah, this guy is for real. It's gonna work with him.'
"We're a product of different generations, but you meet where connections are really made, where it's mutually important to tell a particular story. Because so much of our work has so much to do with ourselves, our lives, our images, what we are and what we adopt as a character get very mixed up. There's not much I'm hiding as Marie."
Playing such a role also may be good for the soul. "When you have a powerful film that affects people so intimately," Miss Rampling says, "and when you're really carrying a performance over the entire stretch, you just doubtless We want to get right down into people's hearts and souls, into the deep-down somewhere. I've always wanted to do it in the way it has finally happened with 'Under the Sand.'"


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