Though my admiration and respect for the haunting Charlotte Rampling is second to none, I often find myself mystified by her choice of material. She can do anything from commercial projects with Hollywood stars to dark, existential European art films with subtitles, and she does it all with awesome range and skill. But there are times when she does it all alone, and you wish she had a guide dog. Another wrenching performance gives equilibrium and nuance to Hannah, a French-Italian-Belgian co-production that won her the Best Actress award at last year’s Venice Film Festival. She’s so mesmerizing you can’t take your eyes off her. This is good, because there’s nothing else to watch or care about in the entire film anyway. Once again, a great actress is on her own.
In this intimate character study, she plays an aging woman whose life is tossed into a salad of disorder and conflict when her husband goes to prison—a fate that forces her to face the unexpected repercussions of someone else’s misfortunes—shame, guilt by association, the stigma of suspicion and distrust, and the consequences of introspection and psychological self-doubt.
Writer-director Andrea Pallaoro provides little helpful insight into the past that might explain Hannah’s fate. We know only that the husband is some kind of pedophile, Hannah has chosen to stand by him, and now as a ruined victim of her own naiveté, she’s at the end of her life, reduced to a meager existence in Brussels as a cleaning woman, living out a life of loss, regret, and loneliness. We see her coming home with a bag of groceries, preparing another dreary, unappetizing meal in silence, the only sound in the room the drone of a TV set in the background, resigned to a routine of isolation and resolve. A recurring visit to an acting class she is taking provides her with her only means of communication with the outside world.
We see her doing menial work for a woman with a handicapped child. She washes her dog. Making a rare attempt to show emotion, she breaks into a weary smile on her grandson’s birthday as she bakes a cake, wraps it carefully in an attractive gift box and carries it protectively for a long distance to a better side of town, where her estranged son lives in comfortable circumstances superior to those of his downtrodden mother. Even then, the dejected Hannah is forced to return from a moment of brief joy to the burden of isolation and loneliness. Left to ponder what to do with the rest of her empty life, Rampling breaks your heart with little more than the crinkles corners of her eyes.
Minimalism is both the film’s key strength and weakness at the same time. I usually embrace sadness and minimalism on the screen, but in Hannah the drawbacks have a curdling effect. The director has been toxically impacted by too many deadly Darren Aronofsky and Michael Haneke movies. Without giving us a coherent back story, we are doomed to rely on the estimable powers of a great, nuanced actress who has to do it all with her facial expressions (or subtle lack thereof). This is not a bad thing; even though the once-alluring contours of Rampling’s face now look ravaged, she is in complete control of her powers to fill in the gaps with only the bare bones of action and dialogue to draw from. She’s on her own, and although she’s more than up to the task, I’m the kind of viewer who prefers a bit of meat with his broth.