From the Outside In

One of the enduring difficulties in depicting on the screen the internal life of a character is that it can’t actually be seen. The attempts to do so have ranged from expressionism—an over-exaggeration of emotional expressions in order to make them visible—to a more subdued realism where the emotion is found in the dialogue or the action or the circumstances.

There is a third way, of a “transcendental style,” which Paul Schrader describes as intentionally making both dialogue and action relatively dull, so that the emotion and the emotional reaction of the viewer only comes through in a moment of final revelation. The “everyday” gradually begins to give way as the false realism slowly tears open, and the viewer has an experience of the transcendent, which can’t be captured in the normal ways of cinema.

[SOME SPOILERS]

Hannah (2018; available on Tubi with ads, or on Hoopla [through your local library]) is not fully in the transcendental style of Schrader. There is no resolving “stasis” at the end. Instead, the film ends almost where it began, with the moving train that has carried Hannah back and forth on various errands throughout the film. Hannah is really a psychological study of a woman alone in crisis (the incredible and brilliant Charlotte Rampling), and that’s what makes it fascinating and, maybe, not quite successful.

It is primarily psychological, and so we’re never quite let in on why Hannah’s husband goes to prison or why her son refuses to let her see her grandson. We have a few clues, such as unseen (to us) photographs, and angry assertions that the son is somehow partly responsible for why the husband is in jail. An unknown woman also berates Hannah from outside the door of her apartment. We are left to draw our own conclusions. But refusing to give us those details allows the focus to remain on the effects rather than the cause.

Not only are we left to draw conclusions, Hannah is left with her internal strife, which she rarely can or is allowed to express. She is completely isolated and divided from other people. This shows up repeatedly in the imagery of many shots, which are often bisected and divided at right angles. Hannah herself often is the dividing line in the middle of the camera’s view; otherwise, images are divided by mirrors, by walls, by doors and windows, by blankets and bed-frames; by segments of bodies: torsos, legs, heads.

We see Hannah often in profile, facing toward people and facing away; now from the right, now from the left. The angle changes when we do not see her in profile, as well: from the front, and then from behind. She can’t come to terms with these divisions within and without her. And as she watches workmen level out a painting on the wall, leveling out her own life seems to be exactly the thing she cannot do.

One of the few places where she expresses her otherwise pent-up grief is in her acting class (especially the startling opening scene, which is echoed later in the subway bathroom). The dialogue that the students rehearse becomes the words that she can’t say to her husband. The question is, how should she—and can she—dispose of the unnamed dead thing that lies, like the whale carcass, in the middle of her life? Is it her marriage? Is it her grief? Or is it the inability to forgive her husband who has done this (again, unnamed) thing to their life? How can she find renewed life and restoration, even as she gives new life to a withered plant, pruning its dead leaves and watering it?

Perhaps the only person from whom she is not cut off is the blind boy whose family’s house she cleans. He stands in for the grandson whom she is not allowed to see, but he can’t replace him. And finally she almost runs away from him. In the final scene, I had the overwhelming fear that her isolation would drive her to jump in front of the train. But the train arrives and she embarks—which I take as a life-affirming decision to move forward in spite of everything.

The action in Hannah is sparse, consisting mostly of the everyday, in Schrader’s sense: cooking, traveling, walking, putting clothes on, taking them off. But underneath there is the growing fracture between those everyday events and her opaque inner identity. Though we can’t ever quite cross the barrier separating us from Hannah’s—and each other’s—inner experience, Hannah brings us right to the edge of that isolation and opens up our innate longing for communion with other people.