All About My Mother

Features, FILM, Home Video, Interviews
New to DVD: Son of Charlotte Rampling, Barnaby Southcombe, talks about directing his debut feature, I, Anna.

An ability to reduce a man to helplessness through a chilly sensuality,” Barry Norman coined the term ‘to rample’[1] for Barnaby Southcombe’s  legendary mother,[2] Charlotte Rampling. When Lumière skypes the British director at his London home he laughs voluptuously. “How perfect is that!? I think you’ve arrived if you become a verb or an adjective.” Well-spoken Southcombe yarns engagingly about Mum, Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Spacey, Gérard Depardieu and other cinematic subjects.

In I, Anna, Rampling’s Anna attends a London speed dating. Detective Bernie (Gabriel Byrne) investigates a murder. An enigmatic woman near the crime scene intrigues him. “I had never done a thriller like this before and it was gripping and a page turner,” Byrne says.[3]

*   *   *

ALEXANDER BISLEY: Almodovar’s All About My Mother is a favourite film of yours?

BARANBY SOUTHCOMBE: Yes. I love how he deals with family and emotion in this rather soft but very profound way. I think he’s got something about the way he looks at women, which I find really interesting. There’s so much love and respect for them, and I like female led films, hence why I wanted to do I, Anna as my first one.

AB: You were affected by Charlotte Rampling’s serious depression when you were younger. There’s depression in I, Anna. How is this film all about your mother?

BS: Well I think why you’re drawn to things are because of a certain darker or more complex nature. Thankfully it [depression] is not something that she’s still caught up in. When you’ve been to dark places I don’t think you want to forget that you have been there, and I think it’s always healthy to acknowledge that there are things that are stronger than you. There were numerous emotions that we wanted to explore and look at, and not necessarily in some cathartic way. These are very real and very powerful emotions, and that’s what cinema is about.

AB: What do you want the audience to take away from watching I, Anna on DVD?[4]

BS: I hope that there’s a sense that—even though it’s a dark film—there is hope for us all. I hope that even though it’s an ambiguous ending, that people see that there is some ray of hope out there, that human relations and love is what life is all about, and to think that people have a chance of love at any age.

AB: What’s a favourite Charlotte Rampling film of yours? What do you think of The Night Porter?[5]

BS: Have you heard of Max My Love? It’s a Nagisa Ôshima film, the director of In the Realm of the Senses. It’s very beautiful. It’s like a fable. It was written by Jean-Claude Carrière who wrote for Buñuel a lot, and he did this very funny comedy of manners about a woman who falls in love with a chimpanzee. Her husband thinks she’s having an affair with a man but it turns out she’s having a relationship with a chimpanzee. So it sounds very mental but it’s actually a very beautiful, very funny and poetic film. Stardust Memories is another very good one; probably one of my favourite Woody Allen movies.[6]

AB: The French noir films that influenced I, Anna? Melville? I saw Claude Sautet’s hilarious A Few Days with Me last year in New York.  Sautet was an influence on I, Anna, wasn’t he?

BS: Le Cercle Rouge, The Samurai. I remember not being allowed to see [Sautet’s] Max et les Ferrailleurs because it was inappropriate for my age, and I remember sneaking back down and watching the film through the crack in the door as my parents watched it. Those kind of illicit moments were pretty defining in my appreciation of French film. I like the way the French deal with odd, slightly perverse relationships.

AB: Any other French films that have been a particular influence?

BS: Le Choix des Armes, an Alain Corneau film with Catherine Deneuve and Yves Montand (who was in Le Cercle Rouge), and Gérard Depardieu. Again, it’s a really interesting triangle between these three characters. And that’s aesthetically something that we spoke about quite a lot.

AB: Have you met Gérard Depardieu?

BS: [laughs] Yeah he’s not as tall as I imagined him but he’s quite a presence, that’s for sure. I’ve met him a few times and he’s probably about 25 kilos lighter or heavier every time I’ve seen him. I’ve never seen anyone swing so much in weight. He’s quite a character.

AB: There was a fascinating, hilarious New Yorker profile on Depardieu and the French economic malaise.

BS: He’s become a bit of a figure of fun with all his tax things in France at the moment. He’s certainly been outspoken.

AB: The most compelling film person you’ve met?

BS: Kevin Spacey. I’ve met a lot of actors growing up with mum. A lot of them are a shadow of their screen personas, but Kevin Spacey is as charismatic as he is on screen. He’s a formidable presence and he has this extraordinary twinkle in his eye. I was very impressed by him I’ve gotta say.

AB: The primary thing with any artist is that it’s the actual work that’s the main thing.

BS: Yeah, it’s true.

AB: How has your mother influenced you as an artist?

BS: I think the overriding sense that I get from her is honesty in how she approaches all her work.[7]

AB: What did you think of Melancholia, which also plumbed mental illness?

BS: I thought it was extraordinary. Like all of Lars Von Trier’s films they become quite frustrating as well because he’s very confrontational, and so at times it’s almost unbearable. But he’s always so inventive. I thought Melancholia was one of his more entertaining films.

AB: Was it challenging filming a violent sex scene with Charlotte Rampling in it?

BS: We had a set visit from a friend of my mother’s who I hadn’t seen since I was about five years old. She hung around and so [laughs] it was a slightly awkward situation. But Ralph Brown, who’s a very experienced and wonderful actor, and my mother, who is also pretty experienced at all these things, took things in hand and said “okay, come on, right, should we just do this?”, and I was sitting in the corner being a bit red in the face. They were very funny about it and diffused the situation. So although it seems a very dramatic and difficult scene actually, actually it wasn’t. It certainly wasn’t the hardest scene to film.

AB: I’m a Gabriel Byrne fan also, love Miller’s Crossing. Is there a particular Gabriel Byrne film/s for you, or his oeuvre as a whole?

BS: Miller’s Crossing was the most defining for me. I like Usual Suspects very much as well. It’s what he brings to everything that I found really exciting.

AB: How’s it working with him, his process, on set?

BS: They [Byrne and Rampling] come at it from a very instinctive place. They need to find the truth in their characters as it happens to them.  Gabriel would work through the scene, the character- how his emotions felt; grow and develop as the takes went on. So, the early stuff was a bit formless and a bit aimless and then he would really start to discover what the moment was for him. So it was a fascinating process to watch.

AB: I’ve been hearing good things, but I haven’t had a chance to see his HBO therapist series In Treatment yet.[8] There’s more dynamic and compelling HBO (and other quality TV) than I have time to watch. I rewatch most of The Sopranos and The Wire again and again, and have often referenced Curb Your Enthusiasm. There’s this lazy and incorrect assumption from some other media producers that people are stupid and unadventurous.

BS: HBO take so many risks, and what’s great is that quality is paying off. Rather than assuming that the masses don’t understand anything, it’s great that they’re not patronising, and they assume that mainstream audiences want to be challenged and want to be entertained and don’t necessarily want everything to be spoon fed to them. It’s just wonderful. HBO’s a golden age of television. Not only HBO, Showtime and AMC and FX and others are doing some really interesting work.

AB: Some older film critics, they complain about how people aren’t making good films anymore—which is rubbish. They might have sentimental associations with older films because they are missing their youth, a lovely date.

BS: [laughs] Absolutely.

AB:  There’s a variety of good and exciting and interesting films made all around the world.

BS: I agree.

AB: What’s a film you’ve seen recently that’s really impressed you?

BS: I’m a big, big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson, but The Master ended up being quite hard work by the end, for me. I need to watch it again. I was really quite taken by Silver Linings Playbook. I was quite surprised, I thought it’d be a bit slight. It’s such a pleasure to be reminded De Niro’s one of the greatest actors ever. I thought he was also brilliant in that he didn’t overshadow the other two.

AB: I, Anna’s cinematic aesthetic is interesting: Primarily browns and grey and dark blues with bursts of primal red; I enjoyed the scoring by Richard Hawley.

BS: I thought of doing French lyrical, melodical piano, as in the films that were my inspiration. I, Anna is a homage to that style of French cinema, but that music didn’t sit right in this environment; I found this combination of French electronica and Richard Hawley’s rather haunted voice worked quite well.

‘I, Anna’ (Transmission, NZ$34.95) is out on DVD. (Thanks to Lumière intern Melinda Jackson for transcription assistance. As the New York Times says, our conversation has been “edited and condensed.”) 

Alexander Bisley previously discussed Depardieu and ‘Silver Lining’s Playbook’ with Kim Nguyen, Robert De Niro with Joe Pantoliano, and French cinema with Juliette Binoche.

[1] À la fisking for Robert Fisk.

[2] Barnaby’s late father was Bryan Southcombe, a Kiwi PR man. Southcombe acted in The Man With Two Heads, a 1972 horror riff on Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde that came out around the same time as Barnaby.

[3] In press materials.

[4] BS: On the UK (Region 2) DVD, there’s quite a few deleted scenes. There’s some stuff that was really hard to lose, one in particular with Gabriel Byrne which I want people to see. It didn’t work within the framework of the film. I did a director’s commentary with my mother. I think it’s great when you can have some good honest debate, and I hope some of those things come out in the commentary. AB (post): There are no extras on the Region 4 DVD release.

[5] BS: I wasn’t allowed to see it growing up as it was all a bit full on. I do remember seeing it when I was in my very early twenties on this terrible VHS copy. And to be honest I didn’t know what all the fuss was about. I think it wasn’t helped by this terrible copy that I’d seen it on. I’d seen it in the afternoon and it just felt very dated. It is still iconic in its visuals and its design because it’s inspired so many things that I’ve subsequently recognised, including Madonna videos. It’s kinda weird seeing that after what it’s inspired. AB: Jean-Luc Godard films, everything they inspired or changed, those radical impulses have been so thoroughly absorbed since. BS: I agree, a lot of it is also experiencing it. The ones that don’t date for you are if you saw them when you were much younger, like Max et les Ferrailleurs for me.

[6] BS: I thought stylistically it was very interesting in the way that a lot of Woody Allen films are not. They’re wonderful on character, they’re wonderful on story, but in essence they’re not so visual, and I thought this was a perfect combination of his rather playful style, and he worked with Gordon Willis who, you know, shot. The Godfather, and Gordon Willis has bought this extraordinary aesthetic to the film and I just think it’s really one of his most interesting films as a result. AB (post): This is questionable. Allen and Willis did eight films together, starting with visually dynamic, iconic Annie Hall and Manhattan.

[7] BS: She’s very unaffected in a way that some actors are very aware of how they are perceived, and that goes as far as how they should look on screen, how they should be lit. There’s a level of control and controlling that they exert, and the older they become, the more obsessive that becomes. And I think something that I’ve learnt from her is that: be true to yourself and be true to what it is you’re expressing, and not really mind what it is. She’s very eclectic in her choice of films, and she’s very unguarded in that way, it doesn’t always work out, but that’s also about taking risks. I hope that I’ll be able to keep that level of honesty and risk-taking.

[8] BS: It’s wonderful, an extraordinary thing. I mean it’s a series of half hour shows and they run every day of the week. They’re therapy sessions and he’s a therapist and every day of the week it’s a different patient. But the next week you rediscover the patient, and on the Friday he goes and does his own therapy with Dianne Wiest who was, you know, in Bullets over Broadway and a hundred films. So you see him going through four different patients’ therapy and then he does his own on the Friday and then you start again with the same patients all the way through and you follow their therapy. It’s amazing, just brilliantly written.

Filed under: Features, FILM, Home Video, Interviews


Alexander Bisley is an editor-at-large who has contributed in-depth interviews and more to The Lumière Reader since 2004. He’s written extensively on culture (and sport) for all of New Zealand’s leading outlets, and also makes his living freelancing for international publications including The Guardian, Slate, and The AV Club. He’s published by The Independent, BBC, Vice, The Sydney Morning Herald, Playboy, and Slate France, and has been paid once by The New Yorker.