Angelina Maccarone, Charlotte Rampling: The Look, 2011, still from a color film, 98 minutes. Charlotte Rampling.

“I WAS PUT INTO MOVIES because I was beautiful,” says the titular sixty-five-year-old legend in the slight hagiography Charlotte Rampling: The Look. It’s one of many self-evident declarations (another: “Demons are what haunts you”) in the first documentary by German director Angelina Maccarone, whose earlier films include Unveiled (2005) and Vivere (2007), both of which had limited runs in the US. Billed as “a self-portrait through others,” The Look consists mostly of the sounds of one desultory, vapid conversation after another. Rampling kibitzes politely with Juergen Teller and Paul Auster, among others, vaguely discussing the nine opaque topics around which the film’s chapters are organized: exposure, age, beauty, resonance, taboo, desire, demons, death, love. Each limp disquisition is illustrated with clips from the actress’s best-known works, including her breakthrough film Georgy Girl (1966), the chimp–diplomat’s wife romance Max mon amour (1986), and her first two collaborations with François Ozon, the career-revitalizing Under the Sand (2000) and Swimming Pool (2003). Every excerpt undermines Maccarone’s project, highlighting the gap between Rampling the daring, transfixing performer and Rampling the muted documentary subject—between the movies we’d rather be watching and the one we must patiently endure.

Maccarone, also credited as The Look’s writer, may have initially envisioned a more penetrating portrait. But, as reported in The Guardian in May, Rampling had final cut. The actress told journalist Catherine Shoard, “It was simply a condition of my involvement. If this film is about me, then I have to accept it, and if I can’t accept it, then I have to know it can be destroyed.” Compared with Maximilian Schell’s Marlene (1984), a documentary about the Blue Angel herself, in which Dietrich refused to be filmed but spoke candidly (and contradictorily and outrageously), The Look, which features Rampling in every frame, seems even more restricted—and unenlightening.

Rampling’s tetchy need for control spills out on occasion, the most satisfying moments in an exceptionally anodyne project. Early in The Look, the actress regally tells the crew, first in English (“Hey, boys . . . ”) before switching to French, where they should sit. After speaking for a few minutes to an offscreen Maccarone about death, including her older sister’s suicide, Rampling’s steely composure cracks and she becomes visibly irritated—or maybe just bored with the line of questioning: “Why are we talking about death? This wasn’t what we were supposed to talk about, was it?” she asks her director, who can respond only with a meek, “Yeah, it was.” “Not really the place here,” the subject frostily retorts.

Despite its circumscribed structure, Maccarone’s documentary does capture a few odd, spontaneous moments, including the richly incongruous sight of soigné Rampling playing foosball or the actress in a Paris park chatting up a bunch of old coots, one of whom she agrees to smooch. It’s a surprising instance of compliance from a performer whose key to self-preservation has been to “find a way that you are not invaded all the time.” And nowhere are her defenses against psychic trespass more evident than in the soft autobiographical sketch she agreed to participate in.

Melissa Anderson

Charlotte Rampling: The Look screens Thursday, November 3, at the IFC Center as part of DOC NYC and opens November 4 at Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.