WHAT WE’RE WATCHING
‘Anatomy of a Fall’ is a masterful autopsy of a marriage and its prosecution
The Palme d’Or winner at Cannes this year was Justine Triet’s psychological courtroom drama starring Sandra Hüller, whose performance is among the best of the year.
Sandra Hüller plays a German writer (also named Sandra) who lives with her French husband Samuel and their visually impaired child Daniel in a remote chalet in the Alps. We’ve barely met the family when Samuel is discovered dead in the snow, and since the investigation fails to determine how he died, Sandra becomes the primary suspect.
What follows in court is an autopsy of her turbulent marriage, the apparent nature of which will determine Sandra’s culpability. Uncharacteristic of the genre, interrogation and blood spatter analysis ultimately take a back seat to therapist testimonials and subjective interpretation of domestic audio recordings.
Director Justine Triet refuses to satiate viewers’ myopic obsession with solving the whodunnit, focusing instead on innumerable interpersonal ambiguities and micro-manipulations.
A closer look
The foreshadowing of the film’s opening moment gives an idea of the kind of audience Triet is looking for: a disorientating shot of a ball falling slowly down a flight of stairs. A dog picks up this portent of the fall to come, looks meaningfully off-camera at Sandra, and we hear a young interviewer ask “Do you think one can only write from your life?” Sandra’s answer to this question would decide her case, but of course, the scene changes before we can hear it.
If you care to notice its symbolism, this quiet scene is anything but a slow start. Stairs and falls are motifs in the film that drop clues the whole way through. The interviewer’s question pertains to the film itself — Triet and Harari balance careers in the same industry while raising children, just like the protagonists; and the fact that the couple in the film were given the same names as the actors playing them seems to also relate to this question.
Once Triet’s poetic opening shot is over, she immediately gets to work confusing the hell out of us. Sandra seems like she might be more interested in the interviewer than the interview, but it’s hard to tell whether she’s flirting. Samuel starts playing a song on repeat upstairs, louder and louder, but for some reason, Sandra refuses to acknowledge it even as the interviewer squirms and ends the visit rather than confront Samuel.
There are hints everywhere, but they’re so subtle. Triet plays with your expectations like a cat pretending it doesn’t notice the mouse. This is a film about internal thoughts and hidden intentions, and the thrill of it as a viewer is to be conscious of a hundred different manipulations — how characters manipulate each other, that of a mother and son or the prosecutors and witnesses, with accusations embedded in every question. You too are being manipulated by all the “clues” dropped along the way, tiny inconsistencies you’re meant not to miss that tease at familiar archetypal plot points and throw you off the scent.
Even the cinematography is leveraged as part of the storytelling in a beautiful way that distorts and guides the hunches we struggle to unlearn from past mystery tropes. We observe the case unfolding from within the same shroud of preconceptions as the characters do.
Anatomy of a Fall is one of those cleverly named films that morph the meaning of its title as it progresses. The literal reference to the anatomical study of Samuel’s body seems less important than the “anatomy” of the confusing legal and personal consequences of an accidental death. The “fall” could just as easily be the descent of Sandra and Samuel’s marriage, which is cross-examined with forensic detail. Or maybe it’s the crumbling of their son’s innocence, as he transitions from unconditionally trusting his parents to doubt.
Milo Machado Graner is astoundingly mature as Daniel, Sandra’s son. Being visually impaired, much of the subtlety of events might be lost on Daniel, so it seems ironically fitting that he remains the most enigmatic character. The camera treats him with empathy, the cinematography mirroring his initial exuberant youth, and the audio mix becomes more attuned to the directionality of sound in the scenes he’s in.
Sandra Hüller’s performance is formidable. In contrast to her character who pleas for the sympathy of the court, Hüller never sacrifices the realism of her character to garner affection from viewers. The focal point of the film is a frenzied marital argument in which Hüller delivers a monologue with such powerful authenticity that it will certainly be scrutinised by aspiring actors in as much detail as her character is by the prosecutor.
This is the second time that Triet has co-written with her partner, Arthur Harari, and worked with Hüller. The first was Sibyl, (2019) a psychodrama about a therapist who starts writing about one of her patients. Even with its witty sensuality, the overcrowded plot didn’t land well with some audiences, but Triet sought to do more with Hüller’s talent and co-wrote Anatomy of a Fall specifically with her in mind, confident that she could bring depth to the character without reducing her role to a mere “message”.
On set, Hüller repeatedly asked Triet whether her character was guilty or not, and even she never received an answer. Triet also consulted a criminal lawyer named Vincent Courcelle-Labrousse on the courtroom scenes, which aren’t marred by theatrics nor bogged down by jargon and ceremonious conventions.
Anatomy of a Fall has many of the trappings of typical courtroom dramas — conflicts of interest, in-court reveals and the anxiety of prosecution — but these thrills are eclipsed by Triet’s brutally honest interpersonal contemplations.
Two and a half hours is a long time for a courtroom drama, which tends to involve a lot of sitting and talking in rooms, but this one could justifiably be described as a Hitchcockian procedural thriller. The tension is edible — a subtle addictive sour stress that becomes more evident the more attentive you’re willing to be. Hüller’s performance wants for nothing, and Triet has harnessed her to bring something novel to a tired genre. DM
Anatomy of a Fall is coming to cinemas later this year.
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