The life story of actress Charlotte Rampling is uncovered via a series of fascinating conversations about life’s big questions between the subject herself and a collection of photographers, writers, poets, painters and filmmakers, including Peter Lindberg, Paul Auster and Jürgen Teller.

An obscured view of Charlotte Rampling's career and life.

FRENCH FILM FESTIVAL: Mythology does not have a place in The Look, Italian director Angela Maccarone’s fragmented but intermittently revealing documentary about the daunting screen star Charlotte Rampling. Early on in the film, which eschews the dictates of a biographical documentary for a series of encounters and conversations that touch on Rampling’s career and personal philosophy, the subject casually dismisses the compelling titular gaze that has attracted cinematographers and photographers alike for the last five decades; 'It is only a look because of a heavy eyelid," she tells photographer Peter Lindbergh.

If you want Rampling’s life story you have come to the wrong documentary. The Look actively avoids a narrative, using overtly pretentious chapters such as 'Age", 'Taboo", and 'Death" to allow her to interact with, almost entirely male, friends and acquaintances. The film not only doesn’t tell you where Rampling was born (Sturmer in southern England, 1946) or her first starring role (Silvio Narizzano’s Georgy Girl, 1966), but it obscures the identities of those involved; if you care for detective work you may deduce that a younger man she acts out a brief scene with is her son, television director Barnaby Southcombe, and that her stepdaughter features in a discussion on 'Love".

The discussions span several continents (best location: a tugboat in New York with novelist Paul Auster) and what is does best is give you a sense of Rampling as a person: no-nonsense, considered, and self-aware. The toxic narcissism of idealised screen beauty hasn’t come close to getting a grip on her, and she deals with the reality of ageing (not to mention the looming inevitability of her own mortality) with plain spoken interest; some of the guests come to flatter, but Rampling is having little of it. Still, some of the topics would appear to be closely connected to her own experience, such as the desperation of middle age men to look for younger women and the specific actions of her second husband, composer Jean-Michael Jarre, but there is no linkage.

As a discussion of her work and technique, the documentary starts with her feelings about the actor’s craft and then slowly zeroes in on key films. On the screen Rampling has retained a cool distance, with that penetrative gaze that is a match for the camera’s perpetual inquisition. A screen actor, she admits, supplies the necessary emotion on demand, before and after lunch, but Rampling concedes that there remains an incalculable element to what she does. Clips from The Night Porter (Liliana Cavani, 1974), Stardust Memories (Woody Allen, 1980) and Heading South (Laurent Cantet, one of her appointments here, 2005) remind you of the extensive body of work, and the unacknowledged idea that when Rampling identifies with a part she can be captivating, but her lesser work in commercial supporting roles is often drily neutral. (Rampling can’t phone anything in whether she wants to or not.)

The format has limitations, but it matters because it plainly appeals to Rampling; she has an affinity with it. Maccarone shoots certain sequences with more form than others – the presence of a second camera appears to help considerably come the editing suite – and small moments sometimes tell you much, whether it’s Rampling describing Dirk Bogarde as a 'protector" on The Night Porter, or admitting that she was the first nude Helmut Newton photographed and that he was rather timid (that certainly changed). Cinema, she decides, is desire. 'You are the projection of inner things," says Charlotte Rampling, but she obviously doesn’t want to reveal all of her own at once.