Charlotte Rampling is an absolute, gold-plated icon of cinema. She has carved out a career of terrific acclaim in the UK, America and all over Europe thanks to her impressive fluency in a number of languages. It’s the French language she’s using for new movie Hannah, in which she plays a woman cast adrift in life when her husband is imprisoned for a heinous crime he claims not to have committed. The role won her the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival back in 2017.
Director and co-writer Andrea Pallaoro follows the title character closely in a story that, defiantly, gives very few answers to the viewer. Andrea got on the phone with VultureHound ahead of the film’s release to chat about his unique, stripped-down drama…
For people who haven’t seen it, could you explain a little of what Hannah is all about?
It’s the story of a woman whose husband goes to prison and she’s coping with the aftermath of that situation. It started from something that scares and fascinates me at the same time, and that’s a question. What happens after you spend 40 or 50 years with someone else, and your identity is so directly ingrained with them, and then you find out something so extreme about that person that it changes the way you look at the world?
It was my intention to explore this very specific emotional and psychological state of mind – a character who’s on the brink of losing herself. Her sense of identity is more and more compromised.
It would be fair, I think, to describe the film as quite a stripped-back, minimalist take on the story. You aren’t giving the audience many answers to their questions…
That was the intention from the very beginning. I didn’t want to get distracted by the narrative implications, but to really just explore the emotional and psychological state of mind. I wanted the spectator to reflect him or herself as directly and as independently as possible on to the character and the story. I really feel that is the way for real catharsis to happen. You have to engage in a very active way and put yourself into the story in order to fulfill the narrative itself.
It doesn’t dawn on you until late on, but the very first scene of the film is probably the loudest the film ever gets and the most off-balance it puts you. It begins with an enormous noise, then it’s quiet for 90 minutes.
Yes, that’s very true. It’s maybe the only time we see Hannah expressing herself. Even when she breaks down in the bathroom later on, she keeps it all inside. She doesn’t want to make noise. It’s really about a woman who doesn’t want to be seen and wants to disappear. She’s struggling with the idea of hanging on, so it’s definitely a very restrained and quiet approach to storytelling.
Hannah is in almost every frame of the movie and, with that in mind, how important was it to get a leading lady with the calibre of Charlotte Rampling?
It was absolutely crucial. In fact, I wrote the screenplay thinking of Charlotte and I cannot imagine anyone else playing this role. I think if she hadn’t agreed, I wouldn’t have been able to complete this film. I didn’t know that she would agree because we didn’t know each other, but I wrote it for her and so when she did agree, it was very exciting and very meaningful for me.
I was a huge fan of her, since I first saw her on the big screen. I think I was 14 years old and it was The Damned by Luchino Visconti. I fell in love with her.
She’s very much an icon of British cinema, but I think Brits can often forget that she’s just as important to European movies too. We want her all to ourselves!
It’s true! She has a long legacy and history of playing iconic roles in so many European countries, with Italy being one of them, of course!
The film is very much about this character’s isolation and so the focus is always on her. Even for an actress like Charlotte, that has got to be a lot of pressure to put on one person.
[laughs] Yes, I’m sure it was! It speaks volumes to her courage and dedication that, not only did she agree to do the film, but she committed to it so fiercely and with so much integrity.
You mentioned her importance in getting the film made. You’ve made two features now and Charlotte has made around 100. Were you able to learn from her experience on set?
Absolutely! Working with her, every day I felt was a gift – in the way she sees things, in her gaze, in the way she would analyse things. It was one gift after another. It’s not just by working together that I learned from her. It was also by just spending time together.
It’s a relationship that still continues. I’m meeting her for lunch in Paris this week. It’s almost a platonic love story, I think. It’s a relationship that challenges me constantly to expand my thinking of life and of myself even. When I find a relationship like that in my life, I celebrate it because it’s exhilarating to have that.
That sort of relationship, I think, is something Charlotte herself is quite familiar with, having made a number of films with François Ozon in the noughties. Is that the sort of relationship you’re keen to cultivate, making multiple films with her?
I would love to. I hope it will happen and that’s my intention. I would be so lucky to have the opportunity to create with her again. Of course, the right character has to come along, but I feel very strongly that it will very soon.
One of the questions raised is how much Hannah should be blamed for what her husband has done. In an era in which social media drives people to very quick judgement, is there any commentary to be found there?
I always tend to think about the relatives of someone that has been accused and imprisoned of one of the most atrocious acts against humanity. I do feel a lot for those people that are left dealing with the rest of the society and the consequences of it. I had never seen an exploration of that character, in particular, and so I was drawn to it, especially in the context of society today.
Do you have a personal opinion on it? Where do your sympathies lie?
It’s interesting, because I have gone through a journey with her of feeling all sorts of emotions, as I was writing, shooting and editing the film. That is exactly the type of cinema I am interested in and exactly what I hope the audience will take from it.
That ambiguous space of thinking is crucial, I think, to challenge and to allow the spectators to feel the catharsis that is needed to understand themselves better. In that ambiguity, there is the opportunity to get to know yourself and to challenge your understanding of yourself and the world around you.
I try not to judge Hannah at this point. I found my loyalties being challenged constantly. The film is so careful about what information it gives the audience and what it retains, so that the audience has to contribute to the puzzle. When not all of the information is given, the audience has to come up with the pieces themselves, and those pieces are revealing of who they are and their experiences.
You’ve so far co-written everything you’ve directed with Orlando Tirado. How important is that partnership to your movies?
It’s absolutely crucial. Orlando and I work with each other in almost a ping pong style and the film is born from that constant dialogue. We start from a very sensorial and visual point of view. Once we have identified the story we want to tell, we start collecting images that evoke that subject and character. Once we have collected enough, we start sewing them together and, through that juxtaposition, more images are formed and the narrative is born.
Both of your films have featured female protagonists. What is it that inspires two male writers to be telling these stories led by women?
That’s a question I ask myself every once in a while and I’m not sure I have been able to give myself a satisfying enough answer. I feel like it’s actually an instinctual need. I find female characters to have a much broader range of emotions and I am very fascinated by the idea of the ‘fallen woman’ within the context of society. It’s a personal catalyst to understand myself better.
Would you ever direct anything that you hadn’t written?
I am open to that experience. It would be very different. As of now, I am focusing on some projects I have written with Orlando, so I don’t necessarily have anything like that in the works. I am very open to it though.
You took this film to Venice and Charlotte won the Best Actress prize there. How was that experience, and seeing your film so well-received at the festival?
It was incredibly gratifying. That year had an exceptionally strong line-up of films and so to be included in that group was very meaningful for us, and especially for Charlotte to be singled out. That was electrifying and unforgettable for all of us. It was actually the best award for me that the film could get, even better than the Golden Lion, because I really wanted Charlotte to get the credit that she deserves and to be recognised for that extraordinary work.
Your next film, Monica, is about a transgender woman. What drove you to tell that kind of story?
I see it as the second part of that trilogy about abandonment. It’s an extension, in a way, of Hannah because it explores a state of mind. It follows a middle-aged transgender woman who returns home to take care of her mother, who has Alzheimer’s and is dying, after being away for more than 25 years. It was actually her mother, who was partly responsible for throwing her out of the house when she was a 17-year-old boy. It’s a film that explores the consequences of abandonment and the lengths we go to to reestablish the equilibrium within ourselves.
We are in the development phase. The script has been written and we’re in the casting stage. We have already secured most of the financing for the film and hope to secure the rest through casting.
Hannah is in UK cinemas from 1st March.