‘Anatomy of a Fall’ Review: Sandra Hüller May or May Not Be a Murderer in Chilly Courtroom Drama

They say trends come in threes. And so, nipping on the heels of Alice Diop’s “Saint Omer” and Cedric Kahn’s Directors’ Fortnight breakout “The Goldman Case,” Justine Triet’s “Anatomy of a Fall” make a compelling case that the courthouse has become the most fertile ground in contemporary French cinema, offering incisive auteurs both motive and opportunity to put social structures on trial. As it calls the institution of marriage to the stand, Triet’s piercing film holds the ambient tensions and illogical loose ends of domestic life against the harsh and rational light of a legal system that searches for order in chaos.

Rounding out her own impressive hat trick, “Toni Erdmann” and “The Zone of Interest” star Sandra Hüller dazzles in a role clearly written with the performer in mind. She plays Sandra, a German-born, France-based bisexual novelist accused of killing her male partner in a way eerily foretold by one of her novels. And if that description calls to mind another icy-blond (in a performance, incidentally, that also shook the Cannes Film Festival, back in 1992), the echo is both wholly intentional and entirely irrelevant. Indeed, “Anatomy of a Fall” is filled with such anti-portents –coincidences or clues, depending who you ask, echoes or empty noise, depending on who’s listening.

In other words, the film deals in uncertainty, so let’s stick with the facts. One wintry morning, high in the French Alps, Samuel (Samuel Theis, notice a trend?) is found dead on the ground outside his house. The cause of death is acute head trauma, that much is clear, but forensics cannot indicate if said trauma occurred before or after a three-story fall. And what about that fall, or was it a push, or was it a ju—ah we’re slipping again, so back to straight facts: Sandra was the only other person in the house, and tension was in the air.

They fought the previous night, before bickering from a distance earlier that morning, as Samuel — himself a frustrated novelist — drowned out and surreptitiously ended a flirtatious interview between his more successful wife and a fawning grad student. (His murder weapon to kill the interview? An instrumental, calypso remix of “P.I.M.P.” blasted at full volume. A cherished favorite or a misogynistic micro-aggression? That’s for the lawyers to decide!)

Or, more to the point, for the jury, and for the viewers themselves. Triet, however, isn’t about to tip her hat. Refining a sideplot from her (wonderful) 2016 comedy “In Bed with Victoria”  — which follows a lawyer whose personal life is in shambles as she deftly wins a case for a defendant whose innocence is ever in doubt – Triet once again plays with judicial frameworks, not moral ones, painting in shades of grey by leaving Sandra’s innocence an open and lingering question. Whereas the filmmaker’s earlier work tracked legal dispassion and personal collapse along parallel narrative tracks, “Anatomy of a Fall” overlays them to devastating effect, surpassing the modest pleasures of a cerebral whodunnit by recognizing that the family tragedy is the same no matter what.

Bearing the brunt of that tragedy is Sandra’s son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner). Blind since a childhood accident that left his parents’ marriage with scars that would never fully fade, the roughly 10-year-old boy goes from quiet witness to the ultimate, heart-wrenching victim of the larger trial.  At first the boy and his mother are united under the same roof, sharing a liminal grief made literal as an unfinished chalet turned crime-scene – a broken house that can never again be a home, as it remains fixed-in-time at the worst moment of their entire lives. Police rifle through, taking pictures, cordoning off rooms, and turning yesterday’s dirty laundry haphazardly cast on the ground into tomorrow’s legal evidence.

But soon their perspectives diverge, first as the prosecution (embodied by “BPM” star Antoine Reinartz) casts doubt on Sandra, and then as the defense (played by “By the Grace of God” breakout Swann Arlaud) turns the tables on the dead man himself, settling on a legal strategy to try Samuel for his own death. Whoever wins, the boy loses, and as his perspective gradually assumes greater narrative attention, the film’s chilly mien grows colder and colder and soon begins to burn.  

Triet co-wrote the script with Arthur Harrari, who is himself the acclaimed filmmaker behind “Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle,” the star of “The Goldman Case,” and – it would be remiss not to mention – Triet’s real-life spouse. I only bring this up because metafiction (or autofiction, as the French call it) plays an integral part of the plot. Sandra has ascended the literary ranks by mining her life for material, and her late husband had just started doing the same at the time of his demise. The discovery of Samuel’s hidden audio files recording the couple’s most heated disputes – including one from the night before his death – could seem like manna from heaven for an eager prosecution while just as easily opening wider questions about the very act of introspection. If you’re really committed to airing dirty laundry, won’t you instinctively go for the stinkiest socks?     

Sandra has made an implicit promise with her readers that her fiction contains hints of truth, but then, what artist has not? Though passages imagining spousal murder threaten to convict the film’s protagonist in the court of public opinion well before a verdict is reached, they also dovetail with Triet and Harrari’s larger thematic concerns. “Anatomy of a Fall” is never really about the trial, and doesn’t only explore the chasm between empiricism and emotion; at its searing best, the film tracks family destruction with cold precision. If an artist relies on memories, why not also share nightmares? Why not build a polar vortex that crushes fact under fiction, that lifts from last night’s argument, today’s viewing of a ’90s classic and tomorrow’s worst fears? A cyclone that sends the mind soaring, and primes the heart for a hefty fall. 

Grade: A-

“Anatomy of a Fall” premiered In Competition at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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