Film Review: Hannah

Andrea Pallaoro’s second feature is a formally rigorous, minimalistic character study of a woman who’s slowly excommunicated from society.
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Andrea Pallaoro has described his second feature Hannah as “an existential giallo.” Existential it may well be. But Pallaoro’s claim to inclusion among that rather rarified group of Italianate sex-and-violence thrillers—with their straight-razor-wielding, black-gloved killers and operatically florid murder set-pieces—turns out to be something of a red herring. Hannah is worlds apart, in both content and construction, from something like Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s recent The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears, a far more legitimate successor to those cult films. The Belgian husband-and-wife filmmaking team freely availed themselves of the delirious stylization of the giallo genre, as well as its well-established iconography, in order to plumb the psychosexual fallout resulting from the breakdown of a marriage.

Hannah, on the other hand, proves to be a formally rigorous, minimalistic character study of a woman (Charlotte Rampling) who’s slowly excommunicated from society after her husband (André Wilms) goes to prison for child molestation. Pallaoro and DP Chayse Irvin favor static camera setups that vertically bisect (or otherwise slice up) the 2.35:1 frame, isolating characters in fragmented shards of negative space. There’s also a lot of compositional contrast between foreground and background, often involving mirrors or other reflective surfaces, in a manner that clearly suggests the influence of John Carpenter, even though it’s been put to completely different aesthetic and thematic uses.

If there’s any aura of mystery at all about Hannah, it’s to be found in the way that Pallaoro and fellow screenwriter Orlando Tirado obliquely parcel out their narrative through a concatenation of obscure happenings (some ultimately explicable, some left dangling), thereby forcing the viewer to make certain inferences about exactly what’s going on. These events effectively work to externalize Hannah’s inner life, according to a style that might best be described as “naturalistic expressionism”: The acting class Hannah attends throughout the film is in the process of preparing a play about the end of love and the collapse of a marriage. Along the way, Hannah witnesses a lovers’ quarrel on the subway and passes a busker performing, aptly enough, an acoustic rendition of David Bowie’s “Modern Love” with its disenchanted refrain: “God and man don’t believe in modern love.”

Given her exquisite angularity and air of icy aloofness, Rampling embodied a kind of modish unavailability during her heyday as an icon of Swinging London. Nowadays, her films tend to emphasize the often unkind processes of temporal erosion on the human physiognomy, none more starkly and elegiacally than Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime (2009). There, she plays a hideous caricature of her present self, a self-professed gargoyle of self-loathing who picks up Ciarán Hinds’ recently paroled child molester in a dive bar.

Hannah would seem to be in some manner of indirect conversation with that film, given the situational overlap, but the two filmmakers’ vision for Rampling’s character couldn’t be more dissimilar. Solondz endows her with an almost brutal frankness when it comes to her shortcomings, whereas Rampling plays it much closer to the vest for Pallaoro: While her face remains set in a perpetual mask of misery, her thoughts are largely inscrutable to us, save for the conceit of the film’s “expressionist” construction. Pallaoro overtly comments on this overlay of art and artifice when he has Hannah mutely witness a film crew at work outside the florist shop she’s patronizing. With Hannah, you’re left to draw your own conclusions.

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