Hannah review – quietly haunting portrait of an upturned life | Peter Bradshaw's film of the week

In this often wordless drama, Charlotte Rampling brings an intelligent intensity to the role of a woman whose ageing husband has been jailed

Experiencing the formal, compositional chill of this film is like opening the door of a freezer cabinet and putting your head inside. The Italian film-maker Andrea Pallaoro directs and co-writes, and the star is Charlotte Rampling, whose performance won her the Volpi cup for best actress at the Venice film festival two years ago. It is the portrait of a lonely, unhappy life and the action is almost wordless, in a series of scenes often recorded by fixed camera positions that (for a while) withhold from the audience the full truth of what is happening. It is perhaps inspired by Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Au Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.

Hannah (Rampling) lives alone in a modest apartment, her face an enigmatic mask. In fact, the film itself has what you could call Resting Charlotte Rampling Face: austerely intelligent, unsmilingly beautiful, intimidating, cold in a way that speaks of sadness protectively walled up in dignity and courtesy. It is an expression that could too easily be mistaken for simple contempt or self-disgust.

She has a job working as a cleaner for a wealthy woman in an elegant, modernist house, and she has become reasonably friendly with the woman’s young son whose blindness evidently facilitates the nearest thing Hannah now has to intimacy with anyone. It’s a Frankenstein’s-monster exile.

Hannah appears a bit above this kind of work – though this may be an illusion created by the impression of martyred, fastidious hauteur. Maybe it is the only employment possible, because Hannah’s ageing husband (André Wilms) has been sent to prison, for a disgrace that we can just about imagine. Hannah gets silent phone calls and angry bangs on her door, an ordeal she accepts with calm.

Perhaps Hannah has never been a very demonstrative person. Pallaoro shows how rare and subdued emotions are with her by having Hannah simply smile at her husband when she sees him at visiting hours and he asks: “Why are you laughing?” But Hannah is not incapable of expressing emotions. There is a wrenching scene in which she sobs with despair – in private.

Hannah has accepted her husband’s word that he is innocent and she is just about keeping things together. What is helping is her membership of an amateur theatrical group that is rehearsing Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. The scenes of her participation in their various vocal and physical exercises, and the juxtaposition of these scenes with her day-to-day life as Hannah imperceptibly deteriorates, give the movie its flavour and its mystery.

She has poured her denied emotions into this drama group. The sound of the voice warm-ups, with their stylised toneless singing, sound like Hannah’s own ventriloquised wails of anguish. She can act a role; she can put on a show; she can impersonate someone else – someone trapped. However, the nature of the play is probably not as important as the improv-type games being played. It is the nearest thing to a 12-step group for Hannah. But any therapy it provides is illusory.

Hannah has no friends in the group. There is no question of going for a cheerful coffee and chat with some of them after the session. She seems to prize her solitude here as much as anywhere.

Elsewhere, we see Hannah going about her business, chugging stoically around on the Métro, and in one crucial scene doing so carrying a cake in a large and precarious cardboard box. We also see her in the swimming pool at the sports club and in the changing room where her nakedness is revealed without prurience: another aspect of Hannah’s affectless candour, which the film itself intuits. The pool, the Métro, the streets: these are public spaces in which she is utterly alone, at once crushed and hollowed out.

My only reservation with the movie is that I found myself wondering if the drama-group scenes could be extended and developed, even to the extent of Hannah taking part in actual production, in front of an audience, and we could thus savour the eerily refined spectacle of her denial and alienation. Yet perhaps that isn’t the point and would overbalance the form of the picture and compromise the essence of Hannah’sbarricaded privacy. It is a haunting portrait of emotional undeadness.

Contributor

Peter Bradshaw

The GuardianTramp

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