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Charlotte Rampling gives an emotionally rigorous display of bruising internalization, without an ounce of vanity, in the title role of Hannah. But although the lead performance commands admiration, the overall impact of this unrelentingly dour account of a woman struggling to carry on with her life after her husband’s imprisonment is dulled by its distancing approach. While Italian-born director Andrea Pallaoro showed promise with his 2013 debut Medeas, an elegant contemporary twist on Greek tragedy, this second feature is an exercise in miserabilism that withholds far more than it yields.
Set in an unnamed Belgian city near the coast, the film unfolds in the wake of a crime that is never explicitly identified but strongly suggested via clues sprinkled throughout the elliptical action: A woman is heard beating on Hannah’s door, demanding a “mother-to-mother” talk about the damage inflicted on her son; an envelope of unseen but clearly incriminating photographs is found tucked behind a closet. Hannah’s careworn face clouds over during these moments, her hooded eyes expressing fear, humiliation and shame.
We first encounter her releasing a guttural scream that turns out to be a vocal exercise for the theater group to which she belongs. Movement games and scene studies from those classes punctuate the action, with Hannah at times working on dialogue that overlaps ambiguously with her situation at home.
There’s nothing that could pass for conversation with her husband (Andre Wilms) over dinner that night, and the next morning she carefully lays out his clothes before accompanying him to prison. Only subsequently does it become clear that the couple was not there for visiting purposes; Hannah’s husband was being incarcerated.
Already, very early in the film, Pallaoro’s mannered way into the drama becomes more of a chore than an intriguing puzzle. The script, which the director co-wrote with Orlando Tirado, pares back narrative detail to the bone, and scenes frequently are cut off before their meaning is revealed. Long static shots remain trained on Hannah’s burdened countenance, warning that the filmmakers’ fascination with staring at Rampling’s face will outlast that of most audiences.
Hannah’s job cleaning the airy, modern house of a well-heeled younger woman (Stephanie Van Vyve) seems an uneasy fit, as if it’s the result of her having recently come down in the world. But for much of the movie, she remains locked in silence and unreadable contemplation, often gazing furtively at the behavior of other passengers on the subway as she goes to and from her drab apartment.
The most illuminating scenes follow Hannah to visit her husband in prison, an act that in itself implies loyalty. But the tension of their minimal exchanges suggests her conflicted feelings toward a man who has brought disgrace to them both and cost her the love of her son and grandson. The strongest dramatic jolt comes when Hannah travels to her son’s home in a more affluent area, armed with a lovingly homemade cake and gifts for her grandson’s birthday, only to be stopped at the gate and coldly informed she’s unwelcome while the boy looks on uncomprehending. An anguished flood of tears in a public restroom immediately after is Pallaoro’s only significant departure from the character’s intensely private nature.
Cinematographer Chayse Irvin’s camera favors correspondingly detached angles and careful remove, observing Hannah through windows, doorframes and mirrors in shots with little to no movement. There’s formal discipline in the approach, to be sure, extending to Paola Freddi’s methodical editing and to the exclusion of non-diegetic music. But we’re left with too few nuanced psychological insights into Hannah’s true feelings concerning her husband’s violations and the price she has had to pay.
That’s not to say there aren’t effective moments of pathos in her wounded solitude — being informed that her membership has been revoked at the pool where she swims; or most arrestingly, going to the wintry seashore following news reports of a whale inexplicably beached there. Though it might not be the subtlest metaphor, the sight of that monolithic casualty carries a haunting sting.
However, Pallaoro builds from that sorrowful image by planting a distinct threat of impending tragedy, ultimately revealed as a calculated tease. This cheapens the movie and undermines Rampling’s tightly contained performance. The director cites lofty inspirations including Antonioni, Cassavetes, Akerman and Haneke, but Hannah is too studied and self-conscious to evoke the work of those filmmakers, leaving its grim character sketch with a nagging hollowness.
Production companies: Partner Media Investment, Left Field Ventures, Good Fortune Films, Rai Cinema, To Be Continued, in association with Solo Five Productions, Lorand Entertainment, Take Five, TF1 Studio, Jour 2 Fete
Cast: Charlotte Rampling, Andre Wilms, Stephanie Van Vyve, Simon Bisschop, Jean-Michel Balthazar, Fatou Traore
Director: Andrea Pallaoro
Screenwriters: Andrea Pallaoro, Orlando Tirado
Producers: Andrea Stucovitz, John Engel, Clement Duboin
Director of photography: Chayse Irvin
Production designer: Marianna Sciveres
Costume designer: Jackye Fauconnier
Editor: Paola Freddi
Casting: Sebastian Moradiellos
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: TF1 Studio
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