Justine Triet’s Palme D’or-winning Anatomy of a Fall is a chilly, deeply probing courtroom drama that brilliantly revels in a copious amount of ambiguity. It firmly plants its feet on the strange, blurred line separating reality and fiction, interrogating the emotional toll of the unknown, as Triet cleverly places the onus of uncovering the truth primarily on the audience. We become judge, jury, and executioner with each coldly presented fact and extremely subjective interpretation, with every argument calling our own insecurities and fallibilities into question—an effect that is consistently compounded by the film’s utter refusal to provide any definitive answers.
Its Hitchcockian premise centers on the death of Samuel Maleski (Samuel Theis, in a brief but impactful turn) who is found bloodied and dead at the bottom of his French chalet. His wife, Sandra (Sandra Hüller, an Oscar front-runner) naturally emerges as the prime suspect when foul play is alleged, despite her assertions that it was an accident or, more concerningly, a suicide. Their blind son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner) is the sole witness, and he must make up his mind as to whether his mother is guilty of the crime or accept her troubling claims while she weathers a searing trial.
Triet’s central murder mystery, given steam by the contemporary thirst for true-crime mysteries and thrillers, thoroughly rejects any penchant for resolution (forget any chance of a twist ending). Instead, Anatomy of a Fall uses its premise as a catalyst to interrogate something much more familiar and encompassing: marriage. A union that brings forth some of the most satisfying, rewarding moments of life, as well as its most harrowing and heartbreaking. Triet’s striking mystery quickly trains its detached eye on the power dynamics and inner machinations of “marital bliss”, and the concessions, jealousies, and misgivings that often engulf it.
Anatomy of a Fall lets audiences, much to their chagrin, sit and soak in the uncertainty, and relish, like Triet, in the opaqueness of not only her story but one’s trust and resolve in their own relationships. Triet’s camerawork embraces a similar ambiguity, as cinematographer Simon Beaufils captures her subjects with an icy, dispassionate lens that renders their emotional maelstrom all the more engrossing and painfully authentic.
In particular, the courtroom sequences are shot with a scalpel-like precision. It maintains a great ebb and flow that is trance-inducing in the way the compositions cascade across the room, capturing each face and testimony with the most suffocating, tantalizing, and revealing of close-ups. Triet’s vision places the audience directly in the courtroom, right next to the prosecutors and defense team. This unorthodox, unsentimental approach is key to its winning formula, and both sets it apart and renders it that much more bracing, revelatory, and human.
Triet’s taut screenplay (which is best described as a forensic drama) presents each argument with nuance and force while never encouraging us to choose a side, often undermining the most meticulous and exacting arguments with the subsequent scene— with pieces of evidence practically brought to life with interludes that powerfully evoke Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage or even Baumbach’s Marriage Story. These moments prey on our tendency to look inward and as a result unearth some of the most relatable, disturbing truths.
Hüller grounds the visual bravura with an Oscar-caliber turn as the steely, enigmatic Sandra Voyter, a successful author whose claim to fame is her shameless incorporation of her own life into her work. Hüller’s performance is at once brutally earnest and seething with pathos, vehemently protesting her innocence, while cracking under the pressure (especially at the prospect of her son’s potential mistrust). We believe her in one breath and doubt her in the next, with declarations like “Stop, I did not kill him” reverberating in different timbres as the film continues, particularly when her infidelities and brazen reversal of gender dynamics come to light.
It’s a vulnerable turn that’s only seconded by Graner’s portrayal of Daniel, the rare child performance that is both tragic in its naivety, as in its maturity. Though he essentially plays a vehicle for the audience’s perspective, Graner never fails to imbue the persona with heart, especially as he’s confronted with harrowing perspectives about his parents’ relationship.
Moreover, much of Anatomy of a Fall’s power also lies in its subtle, metatextual take on the nature of artistic intent (an element that is reinforced by having the actors and characters share the same first name). As Sandra’s novel becomes a key element of the prosecution’s case, she claims “a novel is not life.” Yet, Anatomy of a Fall, like the most resonant of art, reflects life back at us at every opportunity, cheekily doing exactly what her protagonist challenges. Does Triet want audiences to take stock of art as a reflection of reality? The answer is as ambiguous as the film’s titular “murder.”
Anatomy of a Fall played at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Anatomy of a Fall
Anatomy of a Fall, like the most resonant of art, reflects life back at us at every opportunity, cheekily doing exactly what her protagonist challenges. Does Triet want audiences to take stock of art as a reflection of reality? The answer is as ambiguous as the film’s titular “murder.”