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A few wrinkles now frame those hypnotic, blue-green eyes and the skin at the throat has lost its tautness, but time has not diminished Charlotte Rampling's Garbo-esque beauty.

A critic wrote recently that she is a goddess no more. Defamer!

When the 55-year-old actress glides into the room, willowy, statuesque and effortlessly elegant (despite black pants that have lost a button), people stare and grow silent. But the more she is scrutinized, the more she withdraws. Arms folded tightly against her chest, eyes averted, she speaks so carefully that the cadences of her native England are flattened so that there is almost no accent at all. "I don't like to be looked at," she says.

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What kind of joke is that?

In a film career that spans almost 35 years, Rampling has invited scrutiny with appearances in dozens of movies made on both sides of the Atlantic. She has specialized in raw, flinty performances -- often in the nude -- that make ignoring her virtually impossible.

Liliana Cavali's 1973 erotic thriller, The Night Porter, is her most famous film -- the one that helped launch a thousand-and-one fantasies. In it she plays the survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, who returns to one of her captors after the war to continue a masochistic sexual relationship. "Couldn't you do A Room with a View just once?" she said her aging mother has lamented.

She went on to make The Damned with Luchino Visconti, Zardoz with John Boorman and Stardust Memories with Woody Allen. She estimates that she continues to work on at least two films a year.

At the Toronto International Film Festival she appears in three: Jonathan Nossiter's Signs and Wonders (in which she speaks Greek), François Ozon's Sous le sable (in which she speaks French) and Hans Petter Moland's Aberdeen (in which she adopts a Scottish burr.)

"I'm one of those [shy]types," she says softly, suggesting that she is a timid person drawn to acting because it allows her to hide behind a role.

"Actually, the thing that has always frightened me most is to be looked at. The idea of all those eyes looking at me is intolerable to me, it's what has prevented me from appearing in plays, on the stage, before a waiting audience. I much prefer film because there you have only the director's eyes on you. And you have the camera and you can play to that. I have an immense amount of timidity. And so instinctively I try to stay out of the limelight."

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It's one of the reasons behind her decision to live in self-imposed exile in Paris, where, until her marriage broke up four years ago, she was the wife of French pop composer Jean-Michel Jarre.

Now involved in another relationship that she describes as "wonderful," she has three children - two sons, one with first husband, Bryan Southcombe, one with Jarre and a stepdaughter from Jarre's first marriage. The continental life suits her. England has always been too confining, though she admits to having experienced some "wild, wild, times" in London during the swinging sixties. She was then the personification of the era's psychedelic decadence. "Oh, we were innocent then," she says, with a Cheshire cat grin. "It's not the same any more, is it?"

Hard to say. The ménage à trois she had at the time with a male model and the public relations man who was to become her husband made international headlines. If it were to happen today, perhaps no one would take notice. That's because the film world no longer seems to care what an actress does once she passes the age of 30.

And if she were living in Hollywood -- which she loathes -- or England -- where her parents still manage to put her down (she said her censorious father recently said to her: "It's amazing that people still want you, at your age"), Rampling would likely be forgotten. But in Europe she is still much sought after, a hot commodity.

"It suits me," she says. "It's nice to be thought about and wanted." Age, she adds, is not an issue.

"In Europe there are most definitely roles for older women. European films are not formula pictures. They do not go out scouting for people to play in them. They hire who is right for the part. In Europe, older women are appreciated. There is not the frenzy there about growing old as in America. People don't rush out and get their faces lifted, their wrinkles blasted away."

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She never has. Her face today is unmade, free of goop and powder. A stain of rose-coloured lipstick draws attention to the sensuality of her mouth. Her ash-blond hair shows wisps of grey.

"All that people say about me is fine," she says. "Who cares about the real me anyway? It's what you project on the screen that is interesting. So it's the feedback that matters. Acting is all about that."

It is also a form of therapy. A long-time victim of depression -- she suffered a nervous breakdown in the 1980s and spent time in a psychiatric ward -- Rampling finds solace in the arts.

She counts photography and writing among her hobbies. Like acting, they help keep her sane. "I think all creative tasks are forms of self-help. They do liberate. You have direct contact with the unconscious. And you are doing these things for yourself, so who is going to judge? You are never setting yourself up for disapproval."

So she does care what people think and say about her. Her aloofness, and ambivalence about her profession, appear to be a smokescreen that shields the real woman from our prying gaze.

But that's a goddess for you. Pure mystery.

"I know I had it a few years ago," she says. "But I don't know if I have it still at all."

Who is she kidding?

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