No Whale Out: Pallaoro Strikes Somber Chords with Pitch Perfect Rampling
You’ll be hard pressed to find another melodrama as inconspicuously tightlipped as Andrea Pallaoro’s stringent sophomore feature Hannah. The Italian director received positive notices on the festival circuit for 2013’s Medeas, which featured Catalina Sandino Moreno in an equally lyrical and measured portrait of a family in rural California. The director secured the inimitable Charlotte Rampling this time around, and he makes excellent use of her.
Languishing with toxic emotional menace in every divine frame, the film threatens to conceal her as niftily as an enigmatic narrative which shows a life in shambles in the wake of a mysterious, insidious tragedy. Conciliatory doesn’t begin to describe Pallaoro’s storytelling methods (collaborating once more with screenwriter Orlando Tirado), which leaves us scrabbling to piece together a portrait of a woman whose world is fastidiously diminishing around her. Superbly infused with an increasing sense of dread (which also marked his first feature), Pallaoro proves to be an adroit architect of palpable desperation using the subtlest of brushes.
Reserved and independent, Hannah (Rampling) works as cleaning woman and attends acting classes regularly. Since she’s not particularly close to anyone in either environment, Hannah neglects to talk about her husband’s (Andre Wilms) recent imprisonment for a crime no one wants to mention. After preparing a last meal and delivering him to the prison facility, Hannah goes about business as usual. Except we learn whatever crime her husband was convicted of might also be related to the estrangement from a son and grandson she seems eager to reconnect with. Eventually, Hannah finds even her avenues of small, predictable enjoyment beginning to sour.
Originally titled The Whale while in development (a metaphor which would have been the preferred poetic moniker), this French language production hinges on the occupation of space, specifically about its titular protagonist. Rampling’s Hannah first appears amid a warm-up exercise, a close-up of her face, off center, looms large. A series of repeated environments occurs as the film moves along, particularly on the metro, where Hannah experiences her only real spontaneous interactions with other humans. She’s a cold figure in these observances, the bustling of people and their reflections in windows suggesting the act of life or living is occurring all around her. The exception is her acting class and her practice exercises between sessions, which sometimes bleed over into what we sometimes mistake for details relating to her life. Left to differentiate between Hannah’s life and her playacting also suggests she’s prone to the same sort of escapism, most likely as a defense mechanism.
Slowly and yet ever so slightly, we begin to understand why her husband (Kaurismaki regular Andre Wilms) is incarcerated, and how it relates to the violent estrangement with her son. Clearly, Hannah’s fragmented world mirrors the same sense of incarceration as the punishment allotted her husband. Ostracized by all except for the blind boy (do you see?) of the family she serves as cleaning lady for, what we learn about Hannah is how she fabricates a sense of normalcy. While her economic means suggests her employment perhaps merely another escape route, she also blatantly lies to her husband about visiting their grandson for his birthday (an exchange framed by the emblazoned prison visiting room featuring a backdrop of a fiery autumnal palette). Hannah’s (often framed with her own reflection or with smudged/frosted glass) environment is filled with death, or life in its waning stages. Waiting for his master to return, their dog refuses to eat, while house plants (including a bushel of white lilies) wither and die. During a rare occasion where she has a visitor (Jean Michael Balthazar), she answers a phone call, inquiring “Are you still there?” Hidden behind multiple frames within her home, we could ask the same of her.
If Virginia Woolf had bothered to write Clarissa Dalloway as the wife of an incarcerated felon, she might have looked something like Rampling’s Hannah. A subway performer crooning Bowie’s “Modern Love” almost seems excoriatingly cruel in one of the film’s only diegetic musical moments, as Hannah waits, in what eventually seems Sisyphean fashion, to be transported back to a life she’s forgotten how to live.
While we’re used to seeing Rampling in various states of physical repose, the performer bares all once more, and on multiple levels. It’s rare we’ve seen her so raw and vulnerable, as evidenced by the besmirched hysteria of a crying jag in a public restroom. Like several of her late career calling cards, including Francois Ozon’s Under the Sand (2000) and Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years (2015), Rampling is once again suffering from the absence (whether emotional or physical) of her husband, left to trudge onwards in isolation.
Increasingly disconsolate, Hannah makes her way to a viewing of a beached sperm whale, which she learned of accidentally when overhearing her employer reading aloud from a newspaper. Wishing to see for herself, Hannah takes a looksee at the corpulent corpse of the sea mammal, a mass of rotting flesh displaced and displayed for all to see before it’s rudimentarily disposed of and then forgotten. Achingly morose, Hannah is an arrhythmic piece of beautifully composed, carefully deliberated miserabilism.
Reviewed on September 10th at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival – Contemporary World Cinema Programme. 95 Mins.