Arts & Culture · Film & Television

Charlotte Rampling Will Break Your Heart in Hannah

When Tammy Wynette first sang “Stand by Your Man” (famously written in just 15 minutes by Wynette and her producer), she advised women,

“But if you love him you’ll forgive him,
Even though he’s hard to understand
And if you love him, oh be proud of him,
‘Cause after all he’s just a man.”

That was 1968. Wynette reportedly didn’t like the song at first, but it soon became her signature show-stopper. (It has since been named the number one country song by CMT, and a recording of it is housed in the Library of Congress.) In 1990, Hillary Clinton responded to the Gennifer Flowers scandal that threatened to derail her husband Bill’s presidential run by saying, “I’m not some little woman ‘standing by my man’ like Tammy Wynette.” This elicited outrage from the public, and a chided Hillary issued an apology almost immediately.

In writer-director Andrea Pallaoro’s bleak but strangely beautiful new film Hannah, the title character stands by her man. In fact, she does more than stand. She makes him a hearty breakfast, helps him get dressed, and travels with him to prison, where he self-surrenders. And, she goes home alone. We don’t know what he’s done, although clues emerge throughout the 95-minute film. But whatever his crime, it’s significant enough not only to have him incarcerated but to pull his wife’s life out from under her.

Hannah is terribly quiet and terribly sad. It’s essentially a character study, but the character we’re studying is given little to do and even less to say. If it weren’t for the intensity of Pallaoro’s leading lady, there’d literally be “no there there.” But, Charlotte Rampling, still striking at 72, brings drama to Hannah’s lonely days and transforms an achingly average woman into a tragic figure.

The movie, which takes place in Belgium and is in French with English subtitles, could have been called La Misérable.

Rampling’s face, shot in close-up often, somehow invites intimacy but never quite reveals her thoughts. She is at once naked (literally, in some scenes) and completely hidden. As we watch her world unravel, we feel pity even as we desperately want her to take a stand and decry the gross unfairness of her situation. But she doggedly maintains her routine even as her small world turns against her.

Quite simply, with her husband gone, Hannah is left to take the blame for whatever he’s done. She is accosted by a neighbor, who bangs on the door and insists that they speak “mother to mother.” After a long sequence of Hannah swimming and dressing in the locker room afterwards, her health club revokes her membership without explanation. Even her dog rejects her. The spaniel, with whom her husband had a particularly affectionate good-bye, refuses to eat.

Most heartbreaking is the reaction from Hannah’s own family. She leaves countless messages for her son and finally explains that she’s coming for her grandson’s birthday. She bakes an elaborate cake and travels to what appears to be a nicer neighborhood. Her grandson runs out and embraces her, only to be ordered back into the house. Hannah’s son won’t speak with her or invite her in.

She barely reacts to most of these affronts, but breaks down finally in a public restroom and sobs convulsively. It is heart-wrenchingly painful to watch.

Hannah works as a maid for a wealthy woman with a blind young son. We soon recognize him as a surrogate for the grandson she’s forbidden to see. She takes time from her chores to tickle his head gently and tell him a fairy story. Although her employer is kind (she gives Hannah clothes when she cleans out a closet and allows Hannah to leave early when she complains of a headache), it seems as though the domestic work is beneath her intelligence — and her circumstances prior to her husband’s arrest.

The only outlet Hannah has is a strange but symbolic one. She participates in a drama workshop, which begins with vocal exercises; Hannah is able to keen and shriek, perhaps releasing some of the agony she suffers. They move on to scene study, alternating lines from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. The choice is significant.

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