This slight book comes with heavy baggage. In 2009, Rampling handed back a hefty advance for her contribution to a conventional authorised biography, and then used the Human Rights Act to prevent Barbara Victor from publishing anything based on their collaboration, on the grounds that it would violate her right to privacy. The Mail typically demanded to know ‘what can possibly remain untold in her audaciously open life’. What it meant was that, having been so extensively naked on-screen,
Rampling had no business pulling down the shutters on her private life.
But Rampling’s extraordinary sexiness has always derived from an immaculate meeting of exposure and reserve. Even with her breasts bare in eroto-Nazi costume for The Night Porter, her eyes are scrutinising and her mouth tight-lipped, with the disarming effect of making the gazer feel like the gazed-at. This is the expression she wears on the cover of Who I Am, the book we get instead of that conventional biography: a picture of her young self, fresh-faced and knowing, but only telling at her own discretion.
We’re told that this is ‘not a biography, or a song, or a betrayal, barely a novel — let’s say a ballad’, which is a very vague way of saying we are being offered something very vague. Who I Am blurs the relationship of ghostwriter and subject by wrapping the voices of Rampling and co-author Christophe Bataille around each other: his narration runs into hers, ‘you’s and ‘I’s shifting around between paragraphs. It’s all achingly self-aware, or as Rampling says of a teenage foray into cabaret with her sister Sarah, the two of them dressed in fishnets and berets: ‘It was so French.’
At first, it seems that this is going to be a book about looking, turning the reader’s prurient itch to know about Rampling’s celebrity ménages and marriages back against us. ‘How tired you are of being stared at, desired. Imagined. And second-guessed,’ writes Bataille, recalling early meetings with Rampling. Or maybe it’s a book about inscrutability: ‘For the Ramplings, the heart is a safe… We only know how to keep silent.’ The trouble is that, wanting neither to be looked at nor to speak is not ideal for an autobiography’s subject.
So there are no self-regarding on-set stories of the actor’s craft here, and no litanies of dropped names. No portraits of early struggle giving way to spectacular success, no score-settling anecdotes that let our subject grab the last word on old wounds. All the usual apparatus of the celebrity memoir is refreshingly absent; unfortunately, we’re given very little to replace it. At a scant 128 pages of large type drifting in white space, heavily interspersed with sharp reproductions of Rampling family photos, reading Who I Am is the work of a few hours, tops.
With so few words, ideally every one of them would be perfectly weighted and precisely set. In practice, Who I Am is pocked with cliché and sloppiness. As the Rampling girls become women, their mother ‘relishes her daughters’ transformation with every fibre of her being’; we are told that the ‘hidden side of life shows a truth that transparency conceals’; the baby boomers, we learn, occupied a ‘historic, indefinable moment’.
Rampling (who collaborated on the English translation as well as the French original) is, it must be concluded, more an actor than a writer. Meanwhile, Bataille seems too dazzled by his co-author to oppose the overwrought emptiness: ‘I look at your delicate, fine-skinned hands… Time has passed through those fingers, desire, playfulness, wisdom, I don’t know, children’s laughter.’ At least he hasn’t committed the unforgivable sin of making Rampling seem ordinary, but his flailing efforts to make contact with an untouchable star would be better left as wordless gaping.
As promised, Rampling gives away little. There is a peripatetic childhood following the RAF career of her remote, one-time Olympian father; nannies and boarding school; and a close relationship with her sister, who dies by suicide, young and far from home, in Argentina in 1967. All of these are things that have been on public record for some time, but the last is the heart of the memoir, which really is about the struggle to speak of unspeakable loss. And as that, Who I Am’s awkwardness makes sense. It’s also a better souvenir of Rampling’s persona than a tell-all doorstepper would be. It is not, however, a very good book.