|Director: Justine Triet
|Screenplay: Justine Triet and Arthur Harari
|Stars: Sandra Hüller (Sandra Voyter), Swann Arlaud (Maître Vincent Renzi), Milo Machado Graner (Daniel), Antoine Reinartz (Avocat general), Samuel Theis (Samuel Maleski), Jehnny Beth (Marge Berger), Saadia Bentaïeb (Maître Nour Boudaoud), Camille Rutherford (Zoé Solidor), Anne Rotger (Présidente du tribunal)
|MPAA Rating: R
|Year of Release: 2023
Like Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960) and Blow-up (1966), Justine Triet’s Palm d’Or-winning Anatomy of a Fall (Anatomie d'une chute) is a mystery that is ultimately not about the mystery itself, much less its solution, but rather about the people who are caught up in it and how the mystery reveals things about them. In an interview with The New Yorker’s Alexandra Schwartz, Triet confessed that, “When we started making the film, I was obsessed with Antonioni’s ‘Blow-Up.’ You know the crime in that movie, where you get closer and closer to an image, and suddenly you see what looks like a murder? I had the feeling that with the trial, it’s not as if you ever see the murder, but you can get closer and closer to it, until, at the end, you’re so close that you can’t see anything at all. You’re too far and too close at the same time. It’s this idea that we’re never in the right place to perceive the truth.”
The slippery nature of truth is at the heart of Anatomy of a Fall, which primarily takes the form of a courtroom thriller, although to reduce it to such a simple genre category risks stripping away much of what makes it so fascinating and compelling. Yes, of course, we are driven by the central mystery, which seeks to uncover how a man died. We know he died because he fell from the third floor of a chalet in the French alps, but we don’t know why. Did he fall accidentally? Did he jump on purpose? Or, was he pushed by someone, namely his wife, who was the only other person in the chalet at the time, supposedly asleep. We he hit in the head before he fell, or is the trauma to his skull the result of the impact? Any of these options is a distinct possibility, and therefore they are all contradictions. Only one of them can be true, which is why investigators have to dig so deep, analyzing the physics of the man’s death, which at one point involves them dropping a dummy off the balcony to recreate the fall and a lot of dissection of blood spatter.
The trial also involves digging deep in the dead man’s wife, Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller), a successful writer who we first meet at the beginning of the film being interviewed by a graduate student. The interview is cut short by Sandra’s husband, Samuel (Samuel Theis), who remains off-screen on one of the upper floors, playing extremely loud music that makes conversation all but impossible. Is this an act of aggression against his wife, who we learn later is bisexual and has been unfaithful to him and toward whom he feels a great deal of professional envy, or is it just an act of thoughtlessness? We never know for sure because, not long after, Samuel is found dead outside in the snow by their adolescent son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), who has been blind since he was four.
The film then settles into the rhythms of a courtroom procedural, with Sandra being defended by Vincent Renzi (Swann Arlaud), an old friend who is often put in the position of having to convey to her uncomfortable truths about how she is perceived by others, especially in the courtroom. Sandra is being prosecuted by a particularly zealous avocat general (Antoine Reinartz), whose shaved head and intense air constitute a bit of unfair loading against him. However, Triet is not about simplicity or obviousness, as the trial pulls us in various directions, seemingly revealing some kind of truth only to immediately obfuscate it behind something else. She does not give us any privileged insight into what happened; we are placed alongside the judge and others to learn what might have happened through witness testimony and physical evidence, the significance of which is often hotly contested (one expert attests that the blood splatter at the scene was the result of the impact from the fall, while another insists that it could only have come from Samuel being hit with a blunt object on the balcony before the fall). Similarly, Daniel has a heart-rending central role in the trial, as he was witness to his parents having a discussion (or fight) just before he went for a walk with his dog, the details of which change in his telling, thus calling into question either his memory or his motivation.
And always at the center is Sandra, who remains a frustratingly and fascinatingly enigmatic presence. As played by Sandra Hüller, who was so good in Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann (2016), Sandra is not an easily likable protagonist, as she is revealed to be quite selfish and even a bit cruel. At one point in the trial we get a flashback of a fight with Samuel that was audio-recorded and is therefore played for the court, which reveals an ugly egocentrism and even violence. Yet, at the same time, there is no question that she loves Daniel, which makes his being taken from her at one point and put under a guardian’s supervision all the more painful. She is also at times funny, generous, and tender, and her relationship with Vincent, which in a more conventional film would have turned romantic, suggests a person of great depth and feeling. However, one thing she refuses to be is a victim, which is why her stoic presence in the courtroom and refusal to be cowed by the proceedings turns Anatomy of a Fall into an indictment of the double standards by which women are treated, as the expectations of traditional feminine behaviors (especially docility and kindness) are revealed to be cudgels by which successful women like Sandra can be beaten back into submission. While Anatomy of a Fall does not provide clear answers or obvious conclusions, it does reveal a wealth of insight into Sandra’s character, but leaves it up to us what to make of it.
Copyright © 2023 James Kendrick
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