'Anatomy of a Fall' Review: Sandra Hüller is brilliant as writer accused of murder in Justine Triet's incredibly complex drama

‘Anatomy of a Fall’ Review: Sandra Hüller is brilliant as writer accused of murder in Justine Triet’s incredibly complex drama

The latest proof that today’s most interesting French films are directed by women is that of Justine Triet Anatomy of a Fall (Anatomie d’une chute) marks an exciting step forward for a filmmaker who seems poised for greater international recognition.

Starring a sensational Sandra Hüller as a German writer on trial for the murder of her husband, this second entry in Triet’s Cannes competition (after the 2019 film Sybil) is a gripping and rewarding drama: part legal proceeding, part portrait of a complicated woman, part snapshot of a marriage on the brink, and part coming-of-age narrative. Anatomy of a fall above all it concerns the essential unknowability of a person, of a relationship and the dangerous impossibility of trying to understand, whether it is a child wondering about his parents or a courtroom struggling to make sense of an inscrutable suspicion. In other words, it is a film about storytelling: the stories we tell others about ourselves and the stories we, as individuals and as a society, tell ourselves about others.

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Anatomy of a fall

The bottom line

Director and actress in full form.

Place: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Launch: Sandra Hüller, Swann Arlaud, Milo Machado Graner, Antoine Reinartz, Samuel Theis, Jehnny Beth
Director: Justine Triet
Screenwriters: Justine Triet, Arthur Harari

2 hours and 30 minutes

If the faintest whiff of “why this movie, now, from this director?” hovers through the first go, Anatomy of a fall it ultimately serves as an invigorating corrective to the sensationalism and talkativeness of so much crime-themed content these days. This is nuanced work, which resists the teasing, Kabuki quality that characterizes even “prestige” efforts like the recent HBO The Staircase (based on a real case which shares broad outlines and some details with the fictional one here). The film also mounts a subtle but sharp rebuke of a certain cultural conservatism ingrained – and perhaps surprising to some – in France, particularly when it comes to gender and family.

It’s a low-key flex from Triet. Both Sybil (in which Hüller played an entertaining supporting role) e Anatomy of a fall revolve around female writers whose instinctive refusal to be boxed in by convention lands them in hot water. But the earlier film blended bedroom farce, melodrama, noir and erotic thriller with a scribbled abandon that was more entertaining in theory than in practice. Anatomy of a fall it’s a much more pleasant watch – somewhat paradoxically, given the film’s earnest subject matter, direct directorial control and commitment to plausibility. Though he renders the story distinctly his own, Triet attempts nothing wild here, which proves wise; why fumble with such juicy material or stage such a formidable lead actress?

Co-written by Triet and Arthur Harari, the film opens in a chalet in a snowy suburb of Grenoble in the French Alps. Sandra (Hüller), a German writer in her forties who lives there with her French husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) and their 11-year-old son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), is interviewed by a graduate student (Camille Rutherford).

Suddenly, the music—an instrumental version of 50 Cent’s “PIMP,” to be exact—starts playing from Samuel’s office in the attic, making it impossible to continue the interview. It’s an unequivocally provocative gesture, suggesting a marriage mired in petty antagonism, and Sandra’s annoyance is palpable under her efforts to push him away. She says goodbye to the student and goes up the stairs, while Daniel – whose vision is impaired in an accident years ago – takes his dog for a walk. When the boy returns, his father is dead on the ground outside the house, blood pools under his head (and 50 Cent continues to blare).

Samuel jumped from the attic window? Or fall? Did Sandra push him? These questions drive the film’s simmering tension, though Triet is less concerned with the answers than the lack thereof, the effect of uncertainty – of not knowing how or why Samuel died – on the shattered young Daniel, who becomes something of a surrogate for the viewer. As he says, his voice full of tears, “I have to understand.”

Anatomy of a fall it is incisive in its portrayal of a legal system’s tendency to fill in the blanks of a case with assumptions and fantasies, here often of a sexist nature. But what haunts the film most paralyzingly, giving it its spine-chilling haunting, is the question of how to perceive Sandra. She insists on her innocence, even though she doesn’t have an alibi or check the boxes of the usual falsely accused hero. And crucially, the director grants us no assurances, no privileged access to information that would allow us to form a truly confident opinion.

Huller is such a vivid and precise performer that we understand Sandra, an intellectual who has negotiated the terms of domestic life to make it work for her. But Richard Kimble she’s not. We can’t be Safe what Sandra did or didn’t do, and Triet challenges us to accept it without giving up on her. In most movies that build on suspense as to whether a main character is guilty or innocent – since Hitchcock Suspected to that of Nicholas Ray In a lonely place TO Jagged edge AND Primitive instinct — there’s a comfort cushion, a co-star we can retreat to. Not here.

The prevailing sense of ambiguity extends to Sandra’s relationship with her lawyer, Vincent (Swann Arlaud, whom she understates beautifully), an old friend who comes to her aid but may harbor ulterior motives – or at least unexpressed feelings – of his own. Telling him her side of her story, Sandra seems protective of Samuel, a frustrated writer and part-time teacher, claiming he wouldn’t kill himself. But with an autopsy inconclusive—his death could have been caused by hitting the ground or being blown to the head before falling—Vincent notes that the suicide hypothesis is their surest defense.

The cracks in Sandra’s case multiply, some of which indicate that she hasn’t been quite forthcoming: bruises on her arm consistent with a struggle; a blood spatter analysis that infers violence; discrepancies in Daniel’s account of events; the discovery of an audio recording of Sandra and Samuel arguing the day before they died.

There are also logistical peculiarities. Since Daniel is testifying but lives in the defendant’s care, a state-appointed chaperone, Marge (Jehnny Beth), is sent to practically babysit him, making sure Sandra doesn’t influence her testimony. The bond of trust that Daniel and Marge gradually build in the background contrasts discreetly with the growing distance between the boy and his mother.

The trial scenes unfold with gripping authenticity. Though Triet slyly hints at genre tropes — overbearing prosecutor (Antoine Reinartz, excellent), harried judge (Anne Rotger), overzealous expert witnesses, eleventh hour revelation — nothing is artificially amplified or underlined. Absent are the gotchas and gasp-inducing crescendos of righteous indignation that are hallmarks of American courtroom classics like Anatomy of a murder, The verdict AND Prosecution witness (not to mention that example of courtroom theatrics, Few good men).

Rather, Anatomy centers on the slippery interplay between character and legal process: the ways in which the latter obscures and distorts the former, as well as the ways in which the former accommodates the latter. Hüller exudes a biting intelligence, but it makes you wonder—through tiny variations in tone and expression—whether Sandra is slightly softening her persona on and off the court, playing the game she must play once she realizes what’s going on. ‘is at stake. The actress also locates the core of Sandra’s genuine vulnerability: although she is fluent in English and French, she is still—as she observes—an outsider in France, unable to explain herself in her native language.

Sandra’s feelings of being misunderstood come to a head when the court turns to her marriage, a once-electric connection corroded by professional rivalry, sexual jealousy, and both everyday and existential stressors. The one flashback we get of the couple — a dispute in which long-standing grievances boil over — is among the most persuasive and powerfully disturbing scenes of marital strife I’ve seen on screen. Theis plays Samuel with frighteningly raw anguish, while Hüller shows us a woman who swings between despair at saving her relationship and anger at the prospect of curbing her ambition to accommodate her husband’s wounded ego.

Working with cinematographer Simon Beaufils, Triet shoots in a style of dynamic realism that is a balancing act: the film doesn’t manipulate our sympathies, nor does it feel clinical or detached thanks to fluid perspective shifts that bring us closer to the characters involved in the ordeal, especially Daniel. In one scene, the camera ping-pongs back and forth with Daniel in the middle as the lawyers argue over his testimony; in another, as the boy listens to an investigator speculate that Samuel was murdered, the screen flashes with images of Sandra hitting him.

These heightened moments position Daniel as the film’s emerging emotional compass, and Graner agonizing as a child at a painfully adult crossroads. Without wagging his fingers or performing, Triet underscores the uncomfortable need to be able to live in and with the gray area, for both his characters and viewers. Guiding us through the swamp of slippery memories, ever-changing narratives, and unreliable narrators in this fascinating and deeply intelligent film, he accomplishes the most difficult task of all: earning our complete and utter trust.