Anatomy of a Fall – movie review

In a crucial scene in Anatomy of a Fall, Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller) tells her son, “Everything you hear in the trial it’s just… it’s twisted. It wasn’t like that.” Indeed, a lot about Justine Triet’s Palme d’Or winning drama isn’t what it seems. This multi-layered film presents a complex narrative web that invites its audience into a compelling but unsettling drama.

A computer algorithm would probably parse Anatomy of a Fall as a courtroom drama. But this is a only courtroom drama in the same way that To Kill a Mockingbird is a courtroom drama. Yes, much of the film takes place in the courtroom, but the story isn’t about the trial. In this case, Triet uses the hearing in the film to explore the implosion of the relationship between Sandra and her husband Samuel Maleski (Samuel Theis); and its effect on the couple’s child Daniel (Milo Machado Graner).

The film opens with Sandra, a writer, being interviewed about her work. But the interview is rudely interrupted by a rap track being blasted over the sound system. After the interviewer leaves, but the noise continues, Daniel decides to take his dog for a walk. When he comes back, he finds Samuel sprawled on the ground outside the family’s chalet in the French Alps, blood seeping into the snow. Samuel is also a writer, but had been experiencing creative block. Perhaps as a way of trying to break through it, he had taken to renovating the chalet. When police arrive, they begin trying to piece together the events. Was Samuel doing work on the upper floor and slipped? Or was it something more sinister? When key questions aren’t satisfactorily answered, they decide to prosecute Sandra. The enthusiastic Advocat Général (Antoine Reinartz) takes on the prosecution; while Sandra hires old friend Maître Vincent Renzi (Swann Arlaud) to represent her. And while the trial seeks to get to the truth, it exposes raw emotions and hard truths. But perhaps most worryingly, it imperils Sandra’s relationship with Daniel.

The title of the film clearly alludes to Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959). In case you’re unfamiliar, in that film Jimmy Stewart plays a lawyer (as in Mockingbird) defending a man accused of murder. The defence is that the victim had assaulted the man’s wife. Small-town secrets and questionable behaviour are exposed. Here the focus shifts from the lawyer to the defendant, but the themes are similarly resonant. It also picks up on the question of how much the actions of the victim should impact the outcome.

The screenplay by Triet and actor-turned-writer Arthur Harari is a masterpiece of gradual revelation. Like the layers of an onion, one piece of evidence after another emerges. Each shifts the ground, sometimes subtly, sometimes dramatically. Those shifts aren’t however limited to shedding light on Sandra’s guilt or innocence. The film moves into deep emotional, personal, even political, territory. The film’s pivotal scene in which the tide is turned, is flat-out brilliant.

If you watch closely, you may pick up on some of the script’s more subtle moments. For example, Daniel is blind. This perhaps alludes to the old adage about justice being blind. But on a deeper level, he’s like the jurors in a way – he wasn’t there, and doesn’t know what happened, but he has to try to make sense of it all from what he hears. Language plays a key role. Sandra is German; Samuel is French. To provide a “level playing field”, they fight in English. At times during the trial, Sandra requests to use English because she says she can’t grasp the finer points of French. Is this a ruse? She seems fluent in French when discussing the case with her legal team. Is she manipulating the system for her own ends? Or is she just using the language of “fighting” to fight for her, and her son’s, future?  You might also notice that Sandra and Samuel have the same names as the actors playing them, a nod to the film’s blurred lines between fact and fiction.

Australian viewers might find the French legal system as shown here a bit baffling (as to which, see the also-excellent Saint Omer). We’re not used to seeing courtroom dramas in which a lawyer will ask a witness a question, then turn and ask their client to comment on the answer. Sometimes the judge or the jurors break into the proceedings. In possibly the most French scene ever, there’s an argument in court over the nature of art. And the lawyers are seemingly able to expound their theories about the case – and more – as they please (although this strikes me as possibly more artistic licence than reality).

Sandra Hüller (Toni Erdmann) is extraordinary as Sandra, making her Oscar nomination for this role hardly surprising. She inhabits the character, taking the audience on a remarkable journey through her (the character’s) psyche. The main supporting role falls to young Milo Machado Graner as Daniel, and he’s just about as superb as Hüller. Samuel Theis gets little on-screen time as Samuel, apart from one critical scene which he nails. Beside those central roles, the supporting cast don’t get a lot of opportunity, though I was impressed with Swann Arlaud and Antoine Reinartz as the courtroom combatants.

It emerged recently that the Oscars have something of a crush on Anatomy of a Fall, nominating it for five awards including Best Picture. Every single one is deserved. This film traverses with some difficult territory. But if you can cope with that, this is a wonderfully rich story and a stunning cinema experience.

David Edwards

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