Pity the luckless fellow students in the amateur dramatics classes attended by the title character in “Hannah”: They might try their best, but week after week, they have to go up against Charlotte Rampling. Sixteen years after François Ozon’s “Under the Sand” appeared to offer the actress her definitive later-career showcase, she shows no signs of artistic complacency in Italian director Andrea Pallaoro’s close, piercing character examination. Vulnerably balanced on a slender emotional ledge for 90 minutes, Rampling’s low-pitched but emotionally unstinting performance must implicitly fill in many of the blanks in an enigmatic story of a respectable, retirement-age woman gathering (or perhaps gradually disassembling) her life after her husband is arrested and imprisoned on uncertain charges.
Oblique to a fault but near-immaculate in its construction and imagery, “Hannah” unfolds in a similarly spare stylistic register to Pallaoro’s auspicious 2013 debut “Medeas,” but is even more artfully chiseled. Though the commercial prospects of this Venice competition entry are probably curbed by the extreme reticence of its storytelling — which is not to say it doesn’t make perfect sense, once the shattered narrative pieces are in place — Rampling’s presence will command the attention of discerning international arthouse distributors, particularly in the wake of her belated first Oscar nomination for Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years.”
Stricken and palpably aching inside and out, she works almost as stoically hard for our hearts here as in that 2015 marvel — another story of a quiet autumnal marriage riven by unsolicited truth. No direct explanation is given when, in the film’s early stages, Hannah’s elderly husband (André Wilms), a frail man in cozy, unassuming knitwear, is extracted from their quiet middle-class life in what appears to be suburban Brussels and placed in prison. Our limited knowledge of the circumstances, however, dovetails neatly with her state of extreme denial, as she continues to live her life as if it hadn’t been seismically interrupted — her psychic pain outwardly emerging only at the acting classes she continues to attend, where she can cathartically release her anguish while disguising it as performance.
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Yet the more Hannah tries to remain in the normal world, the more it conspires to freeze her out of her own life, at levels both drastic and trivial: Family members coldly cease contact, her gym membership is revoked without explanation, while even her lone remaining companion, a cuddly King Charles spaniel, seems to go on hunger strike. (It’s unclear whether Hannah’s social life was always this staid or diminished after the fact, but pervasive loneliness echoes through every scene as if in an unfurnished house.) Pallaoro’s storytelling lets these incidents and insults accumulate with dispassionate patience, our understanding of the apparent depth and collateral devastation of the inciting crime building all the while, as Rampling progressively sheds Hannah’s grin-and-bear-it discipline — which was never, let it be said, that heavy on grinning to begin with.
The film’s measured mise en scène charts the growing distance between Hannah and the lives of others, with Rampling, already occupying practically every shot, increasingly isolated within the frame, or sometimes melting into the background hue. Canadian cinematographer Chayse Irvin, who also lensed Pallaoro’s debut and was recently celebrated for his contribution to Beyoncé’s visual album “Lemonade,” eschews the material’s potential for gray-marl drabness, shooting instead in tactile, deep-toned 35mm with striking, near-violent streaks of hot color amid the wintry chill: the canary-yellow blaze of a bench in a ladies’ changing room, bright balloons on an overcast suburban street, the aggressive orange boundary stripes of a subway platform. It’s exquisite work, but not gratuitously so: These contrasting visual disruptions read almost as admonishments to Hannah, denying her even the right to wallow in dusty interior gloom.
Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman, 23, Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” with its obsessive, minutely detailed interest in domestic process, would appear to be something of a touchstone work here — reverentially acknowledged via the Bruxellian setting of this Belgian-Italian-French co-production, and even certain decorative details of Hannah’s apartment, vividly aged and textured by production designer Marianna Sciveres. It goes without saying that Pallaoro can’t quite live up to such matchless reference points: By the final reel, as the full extent of the tragedy locks into place, “Hannah” seems a shade too pleased with its ellipses, while the insertion of a grand natural metaphor for Hannah’s decay clashes clunkily with the film’s predominant understatement.
Notwithstanding such overreaches, this is an impressively rigorous exercise, in which the director’s sober formalism finds a kindred spirit in his leading lady’s studied, secretive restraint. When Rampling, for her part, breaks form to go big, she doesn’t miss: A sudden scene of uncontrolled, near-possessed crying in a public bathroom, her pain-saturated sobs pouring out until she practically chokes on them, gets viewers squarely in the gut. “Hannah” earns this degree of release, but like its star, can close the floodgates again just as crisply.