After beginning her career at age 17 in a commercial role and as a model, Rampling's first screen appearance was uncredited as a water skier in Richard Lester's film The Knack ...and How to Get It in 1965. She next played the role of Meredith in the film Georgy Girl (1966).
In 1967 Rampling played the gunfighter Hana Wilde in "The Superlative Seven", an episode of The Avengers. After this, her acting career blossomed in both English and French cinema.
Despite an early flurry of success, she told The Independent, "We weren't happy. It was a nightmare, breaking the rules and all that. Everyone seemed to be having fun, but they were taking so many drugs they wouldn't know it anyway."
Rampling has performed controversial roles. In 1969, in Luchino Visconti's The Damned (La Caduta degli dei), she played a young wife sent to a Nazi concentration camp. Critics praised her performance, and in the role she portrayed a different image: mysterious, sensitive and ultimately tragic. "The Look" as co-star Dirk Bogarde called it, became her trademark. In The Night Porter (1974) she portrayed a former concentration camp inmate who, after the war, meets a former camp guard with whom she had an ambiguous relationship. Their relationship resumes. Bogarde played the camp guard. In Max mon amour, she played a woman who fell in love with a chimpanzee.
Rampling gained recognition from American audiences in a remake of Raymond Chandler's detective story Farewell, My Lovely (1975), Woody Allen's Stardust Memories (1980), and particularly in The Verdict (1982), an acclaimed drama directed by Sidney Lumet that starred Paul Newman.
Rampling credits François Ozon with drawing her back to film in the 2000s, a period when she came to terms with the much earlier death of her eldest sister Sarah. After giving birth prematurely in 1966, she had committed suicide at 23. "I thought that after such a long time of not letting her be with me," she told The Guardian, "I would like to bring her back into my life." The character she played in Ozon's Swimming Pool (2003), Sarah Morton, was named in her sister's honour. For most of Rampling's life, she would say only that her sister had died of a brain haemorrhage; when she and her father heard the news, they agreed they would never let her mother know the truth. They kept their secret until Rampling's mother died in 2001.
At 59, Rampling appeared in Laurent Cantet's Heading South (Vers le Sud), a 2005 film about sexual tourism. She plays Ellen, a single English woman who is a professor of French literature. She holidays in 1970s Haiti to get the sexual attention she does not get at home.
On her choice of roles, Rampling says,
"I generally don't make films to entertain people. I choose the parts that challenge me to break through my own barriers. A need to devour, punish, humiliate or surrender seems to be a primal part of human nature, and it's certainly a big part of sex. To discover what normal means, you have to surf a tide of weirdness."
The actress has continued to work in sexually provocative films such as Swimming Pool and Basic Instinct 2. More recently, she portrayed the mother of Keira Knightley's character in the title role in The Duchess (2008).
In 2002, she recorded an album entitled Comme Une Femme. It is in both French and English, and includes parts that are spoken word as well as tracks Rampling sang.
Given her striking style and look, Rampling has also been featured on the covers of Vogue Magazine, Interview Magazine, Elle Magazine and CRUSHfanzine.
In 2010, she completed filming Cleanskin, a terrorist thriller starring Sean Bean, James Fox, Tuppence Middleton, Michelle Ryan and Abhin Galeya. The film was written, produced and directed by Hadi Hajaig.
She will be appearing in Season 8 of Dexter.