While she's now known as one of the leading actresses of her generation, Charlotte Rampling had once hoped for a quieter, more scholastic life.
Hailing from a distinctly middle class family - her father was a military officer; her mother, a painter - she recalls harbouring academic aspirations when she was young. She had wanted to go to university to study history, a subject she says she's been 'passionate about' all her life.
Her enthusiasm for history has often surfaced even as a film star. Two of her breakout roles were in historical dramas - both The Damned and The Night Porter dealt with inhumanity and guilt in Nazi Germany. Among her most recent performances, she plays the Virgin Mary in Lech Majewski's The Mill and the Cross, which explores the dozens of major characters appearing in Pieter Bruegel's 16th century painting, The Procession to Calvary.
'More and more people are going to see museums to see retrospectives of major painters,' she says. 'They are looking at these paintings, and [The Mill and the Cross] is another way of going even further into the painting - I think that's why this is such a success with audiences and young people. It's like going to a history lesson, because it's slow, and you really go into these images and it's like history unfolding before you.'
While she's keen to see others drawing inspiration and meaning from the past, there's some history she's been reluctant to pore over until recently - her own. She has been honoured with many retrospectives through the years, but Rampling, 66, says she's never really tempted to sit down and watch any of the films she has made during the past five decades.
'I come across them sometimes on television,' she says coolly, as she leans back on the couch in her hotel suite in Admiralty, where she stayed during her recent visit as a guest of the Hong Kong International Film Festival. 'I think it's not healthy to have a relationship with your own image. I'll leave that to other people.'
That's exactly what she has done with The Look, Angelina Maccarone's documentary which is, as the film's tagline goes, Rampling's 'self-portrait through others'. Unlike most conventional biopics, the film - which premiered at last year's Cannes Film Festival, and was shown twice last week in Hong Kong - doesn't offer a chronological account of Rampling's eventful life; instead, the actress is seen criss-crossing the world to talk about nine themes she selected with Maccarone. Each filmed t?-?? is interwoven with images from whichever of Rampling's films correlates to the subject at hand.
Her talk with photographer Peter Lindbergh about exposure, for example, is accompanied by snippets from Woody Allen's Stardust Memories, in which she plays an actress who has become the object of desire of Allen's filmmaker protagonist. Clips of Francois Ozon's Swimming Pool, in which Rampling plays a middle-aged writer dismayed by the vibrant sexuality of a younger woman living with her in a holiday villa, accompany her soliloquy about beauty and how she capitalised on her looks to do films that interested her. Her meeting with her filmmaker son, Barnaby Southcombe, on the subject of resonance goes with her scenes in Georgy Girl, in which she plays a woman who gives up her newborn baby for adoption (and divorces her husband) to continue her hedonistic lifestyle.
Certain things about Rampling's own life do emerge in those conversations, as she sometimes speaks cosily with her friends and family in modest settings. The segment about death, for example, hints at the actress' grief over the suicide of her eldest sister, Sarah, at age 23. But however much it reveals about Rampling's world beyond the limelight - such as the time actor Dirk Bogarde gave her the nickname 'the Look' for her famous piercing gaze - there are few revelations about a performer who has remained an enigmatic figure in what she describes as the age of the celebrity cult. Rampling may have allowed herself a look at her life, but the viewers are never really given a definitive version of her story.
'Probably everyone's misunderstood all the time,' she says when asked about whether she's comfortable about how people have perceived her down the years through her work. 'What does that even mean? One person will think I'm that, and, well, others think otherwise. And if you're giving me multiple personalities, great, why not? Now at my age, it's easier to accept it, but when you're younger, you wonder what on earth is going on. But if you put yourself out there, as a performer, you put yourself out to be judged ... so I'm out there to be applauded or have tomatoes thrown in my face.'
Rampling says her entry into show business began in 1965 when she was 18, when she was approached on the street to play a small part in Richard Lester's The Knack ... and How to Get It. 'I did that, and somebody said: 'You're so photogenic; let's take pictures'. But I was like, no, I was really shy and I wanted to go to university. But we did them, and then a photographer gave them to this agency, and literally a week later, I tested for this film and got the lead part.'
The film was the heist comedy Rotten to the Core, in which plays the girlfriend of one of the robbers; the next year, she appeared in Georgy Girl, and soon found herself thrown into the disarray better known as the swinging '60s. She recalls being dismayed about the roles that came her way.
The continental upbringing she obtained as an elementary school pupil in Versailles, France, allowed her an escape route from a career in mass entertainment, she says. Her leap in making The Damned with Luchino Visconti in 1969 became a springboard to European art house cinema.
'I wanted to feel some kind of engagement,' she says, slipping into French, a language as familiar to her as English. She has spent much of her life in France - first with composer Jean-Michel Jarre, to whom she was married from 1978 to 1997, and then with businessman Jean-Noel Tassez. She says life in Tinseltown never interested her: 'I did one [film] with the Hollywood system, Farewell, My Lovely,' she says. 'It's so different, so fascinating, but it didn't appeal to me like art house films appeal to me. I find it a bit alienating with the big crews, big caravans, big money. It was fine and exciting in a way, but it wasn't really my ... I didn't really feel I belonged there. It's lovely to visit from time to time, but it wasn't my world.'
Rampling recalls doing a few mainstream English-language films in the 1970s for the money - among these is Orca, Dino De Laurentiis' ill-fated killer whale film which was overshadowed by Jaws - but Europe has remained largely her playground since, give or take the occasional foray to work with auteurs such as Woody Allen or Sidney Lumet (The Verdict).
After falling off the radar in the '90s, Rampling had a renaissance with Under the Sand, in which she received a best actress nomination at the Cesar Awards, the French Oscars, in 2000. Swimming Pool, with Ozon, brought more plaudits and awards, and her creative rebirth was complete, as she spent the past decade working on off-kilter films such as Todd Solondz's Life During Wartime and Lars von Trier's Melancholia.
At the same time, Rampling's standing as an institution in French cinema was consolidated when she received a Legion d'Honneur in 2002, and then took the role of president of the Paris Cinema International Film Festival. Part of the reason she was in Hong Kong last week was to announce a collaboration between her event and its Hong Kong counterpart, with 80 Hong Kong titles to be screened in the French capital in July. Remarkably, the Essex-born Rampling has never received a nod at the Baftas, even though she has become an ambassador of French cinema with a half a dozen Cesar nominations (and a European Film Award, for her part in Swimming Pool).
Rampling says she will return to France in time to vote in the country's presidential elections on April 22. She endorsed Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007, but this time she's not telling. 'I'm not going to give you a scoop,' she says, as the curtain comes down on the interview.
The Mill and the Cross will be screened tomorrow, 9.30pm, Grand Cinema, and Thursday, 7.15pm, as part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival; The Look will be released on DVD next week