ANATOMY OF A FALL reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Justine Triet
Stars: Sandra Huller, Samuel Theis, Swann Arlaud, Milo Machado Graner, Antoine Reinartz, Camille Rutherford, Jehnny Beth.
There seems to be a lot of love in the room at the moment for this French production. It has already won numerous awards on the festival circuit, including the prestigious Palme D’or at Cannes, and has been nominated for five Oscars. This is a compelling courtroom drama and the title itself also evokes memories of Otto Preminger’s 1959 courtroom drama Anatomy Of A Murder.
Anatomy Of A Fall is a multi-layered courtroom drama which is also an examination of a marriage in trouble and the relationship between a mother and her son.
Sandra Voyter (German actress Sandra Huller, from Toni Erdmann, etc), a writer, lives with her husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) in a chalet in the picturesque French Alps. Their eleven-year-old son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner) is visually impaired following an accident several years earlier. Samuel is an academic and also a writer but has suffered from writer’s block having been unable to complete his first novel. When the film opens, Sandra is being interviewed by Zoe (Camille Rutherford), a young graduate student. But the interview is interrupted by loud music from upstairs where her husband Samuel is working on renovating the chalet, hoping to turn it into an AirBnB. The interview ends and the reporter leaves. Sandra heads upstairs. Daniel heads off on a walk with the family dog Snoop. When he returns home Daniel bumps into the body of his father who is lying in the snow bleeding from his head injury after having apparently fallen from the attic. He is clearly dead. But was his death an accident, suicide or something even more sinister?
When the police investigate, they find answers hard to come by as her story contains inconsistencies and reveal some secrets about the state of their marriage. Samuel was also a writer who was suffering from writer’s block, and the idea behind his unfinished book provided Sandra with the material for her successful novel. This was a source of tension between the two. Another source of tension was the accident that left Daniel blind.
When the police suspect foul play Sandra becomes the chief suspect and is put on trial. Her life comes under the microscope. She hires an old friend in Vincent Renzi (Swann Arlaud, from By The Grace Of God, etc) to defend her. During the trial Daniel is assigned a carer to look after him and to ensure that he and Sandra do not discuss the trial and that she cannot influence his testimony. But the trial itself puts further pressure on her fragile relationship with Daniel as he tries to make sense of the events unfolding around him, and also tries to understand what he learns during the trial.
The trial itself is shaped by innuendo, deductions, accusations, unreliable testimony, and damaging revelations about the state of Sandra’s marriage. Despite the outcome of the trial its nuanced, ambiguous nature still leaves the audience unsure of the truth as the trial exposes many anomalies and inconsistencies between both Sandra’s testimony and the physical evidence.
The French court trial operates in a completely different way as we understand it in Australia or the US. We got a glimpse of the trial system in last year’s Saint Omer, but that film left me cold largely due to the stylistic choices of the director. Here the trial sequences grip, and the film has a claustrophobic tension as the trial peels back layers and secrets and lies are exposed. Language also plays an important role in events, as Sandra is German but speaks French and English, which leads to some miscommunication.
There is a flashback to a heated argument between Sandra and Samuel, but when it turns physical we only get to hear what happens courtesy of a secret recording that Samuel made, so we are unsure of what happened during the altercation. This lends yet another level of uncertainty and ambiguity to the material.
Cinematographer Simon Beaufils (The Intouchables, etc) also works in close-up for much of the time which also heightens the claustrophobic feel of the material.
Anatomy Of A Fall is the fourth feature film from Justine Triet. It has been written by Triet and her partner Arthur Harari (who both collaborated on the 2019 drama Sibyl). Triet’s direction is superb yet subtle, and her approach to the material is clinical and controlled and the pacing deliberate. This is not only a tense courtroom drama and whodunnit replete with many twists and turns, but it is also an examination of family relationships and a marriage in trouble, which has an emotional resonance, the fallibility of memory, the contrast between the law versus the truth, and guilt and innocence.
There is an element of naturalism to the performances. Huller, who has already won an award at Cannes for her enigmatic performance, is very good as the calm and controlled Sandra, giving her an almost icy demeanour that makes her hard to like. The role of the complex and multi-faceted Sandra was written especially for Huller, who shares the same first name as her character; but the fact that her husband Samuel shares the same first name as the actor who plays him was merely a coincidence. Young Graner is also extraordinary as Daniel with a subtly nuanced performance that demonstrates a maturity beyond his years. Arlaud leaves a strong impression as the sympathetic lawyer, while Antoine Reinartz is very good as the prosecuting attorney who is determined to uncover the truth by painting Sandra as a killer.
Anatomy Of A Fall is a consummately written and constructed courtroom drama that grips for the duration of its 151-minute running time.