It’s not easy to watch the slow deterioration of a good person, especially a woman as intelligent and complex as Hannah (Charlotte Rampling). Her husband (André Wilms) has been carted off to prison in their native Belgium for reasons unknown. But Hannah carries on, trying to live life as she knows it. Then life starts to squeeze her out.
At least, that’s the premise of this slow, deliberate film, directed and co-written by Andrea Pallaoro, following a striking 2013 debut with Medeas. He refuses to coddle audiences or fill in the spaces where the narrative should be, and the camera studies Hannah as she goes through the motions of her daily routine – from brushing her hair to rubbing in skin lotion. But what’s roiling inside this woman is something we must discern by simply watching Rampling, an actress unparalleled at revealing the inner life of a character through looks, gestures and words left unsaid.
Having received her first Oscar nomination only three years ago (shame on the Academy) for Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, Rampling, 72, nonetheless boasts an enviable career. She caused a sensation with provocative early roles in The Night Porter, The Damned, Stardust Memories, and The Verdict, then deepened her talents in this century with two superb François Ozon films: Under the Sand and Swimming Pool. There is some Hollywood junk on her resumé, such as the current Jennifer Lawrence claptrap Red Sparrow, but this legendary actor is always worth watching.
Hannah, which won Rampling the Best Actress award at the Venice Film Festival, is more proof of her powers. The film works largely on inference as we watch Hannah become estranged from her neighbors, her family and even her dog. Canadian cinematographer Chayse Irvin, who worked on Beyoncé’s Lemonade video, lets flashes of color cut through the gloom. It’s a theme reflected in the film as well when Hannah takes acting classes, not just to relieve boredom but to allow her the chance to release hidden feelings through performance.
And indeed, it’s Rampling’s performance, in a film that otherwise operates in a forbidding chill, that holds us in expectant suspension until Hannah explodes in a public place. Only then does Palllaoro drop hints about both Hannah’s family and her husband’s crime that begin to fill in some of the blanks. But despite Rampling’s magnificence, a blank becomes the film’s driving metaphor – and the reason why Hannah leaves you cold.