Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall gives the impression of a courtroom drama that is ultimately supposed to solve the riddle of whether a seemingly successful novelist murdered her husband. But the soul of the film never becomes only about that death.
The film begins with the mysterious death of Samuel (Samuel Theis), a teacher/aspiring writer, who is discovered dead in front of his partially renovated alpine chalet in the French Alps, where he lives with his wife Sandra (Sandra Hüller) and son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner). Daniel had suffered damage to his optic nerve in an accident that left him at least partially blind. Incidentally, he is also the only ‘witness’ to the potential crime that has happened as he discovers Samuel’s body first. This is especially crucial to the plot – the guilt Samuel has endured after his son’s accident and the resentment that has since festered between the spouses also affect how the subsequent trial progresses.
Anatomy of a Fall: a trail in pursuit of questions
As the investigation does not come to any definitive conclusion, the story of Anatomy of a Fall moves on to a trial, where the courtroom painstakingly dissects Samuel’s partnership with Sandra. The lack of happiness, compassion, sex, compatibility, and overall balance in the marriage are laid bare for the jury and audience to examine. We see the characters’ intimate lives unravel in vivid detail, to the point where it becomes less about whether Sandra killed her husband and more about how good of a wife or mother she has been. All the negative traits in her personality and in the marriage are cherrypicked to highlight the possibility that she clearly had motives for murder – all this while ignoring that the better moments of the marriage could have easily been used to prove the opposite (as Sandra herself points out in a scene).
Anatomy of a Fall implores, or sometimes even challenges the audience to look into their own biases and assumptions regarding the ideas of the sanctity of marriage, which has historically been linked to concepts like monogamy and heteronormativity. It’s not just Sandra’s innocence under scrutiny; it’s also her character and morality. She is judged for living life on her own terms and expected to adhere to the rules of marriage prearranged for her. While not all of her choices are ethically right or justifiable, as a suspect, her agency and freedom are used against her.
Did Sandra kill her husband? This question is undoubtedly the most intriguing part of Anatomy of a Fall. The trial hinges on finding out why she would have decided to commit the crime or if Samuel threw in the towel and died by suicide. But our interest in the answer to the original question starts dwindling as the narrative progresses. Unfortunately, a lot of emotional baggage within the family reveals itself forcibly and against their wishes purely because the circumstances of the death were suspicious and warranted further investigation.
Certain moments of Anatomy of a Fall also place in full view the tendency of human beings to be invested in anything that piques their curiosity, even if it tends to invade someone’s personal space and dig at the darkest corners of their lives.
Beyond the usual courtroom drama
Anatomy of A Fall fully deserves the Palme d’Or it received at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. It transcends the tag of a mystery or thriller very early in the film. Much like the arguments and statements the prosecution and defense put forward during the trial, it asks us how much of a picture of somebody’s life or inner workings we can conjure up just through artificial reenactments, or by looking at conversations and confrontations from somebody’s past taken out of context.
We see individuals who are part of a strained relationship trying to communicate their anger, sadness, and other ill feelings in multiple languages and yet failing to understand each other at the end of the day. Both partners are shown to make compromises for the sake of the family, but the bitterness inside them continues brewing regardless and act as flashpoints for the quarrels in the marriage.
Sandra Hüller’s performance as a writer, who is struggling to prove she’s not a murderer and rationalise multiple actions from her past that get reproduced publicly, is breathtaking. Her portrayal is realistic without relying too much on overt emotions and sentimentality. Yet, through her, we see a woman trying her best to remain pragmatic in the face of a serious indictment, and simultaneously processing the signs of her son mistrusting her.
Milo Machado Graner, who plays the role of Daniel was another stellar presence on the screen. His indecision around the situation and the grief he is experiencing over his recent loss (and the possible loss of losing another parent) were so poignantly expressed. He displays excellent chemistry with all the other actors he shares the screen with.
Anatomy of a Fall: a filmmaking masterpiece
Many reviews will be rife with the opinion that the pacing of Anatomy of a Fall is too slow and some scenes are too long drawn out to retain the audience’s attention. But these elements are necessary for the film to become as hard-hitting as it is. The time Triet has allowed for every scene – for the back-and-forth happening between the prosecution and defence lawyers while the subjects remain mere spectators, for Daniel to come to terms with what is unfolding around him and the weight his words carry concerning the future of his family when he should be living his life as a kid and for the emotional turmoil Sandra undergoes while being turned into a media sensation and a scapegoat for speculation. It is one of the many factors that makes the film an absolute masterpiece.
At a later point, Daniel speaks the following words in his inevitable testimony, which is a pretty accurate description of what happens throughout the story (translated from French):
‘It feels like when we lack proof to make sure how something happened, we have to look further, as the trial is doing. When we’ve looked everywhere and still don’t understand how the thing happened, I think we have to ask why it happened.’
In the end, the ‘fall’ mentioned in the title tends to signify more than just the literal connotation – the slow decline of a relationship, the decay of a literary career, and someone’s mental health in a metaphorical nosedive.