Anatomy of a Fall, Justine Triet’s Palme d’or winner, stars Sandra Hüller in a gripping, ambiguous puzzle of a courtroom drama and a marriage.
Did She?by Alexa Dalby
Anatomy of a Fall
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
I wonder if Triet was inspired by Anatomy of a Murder (1959) – a classic courtroom drama directed by Otto Preminger? The ironic title might imply that.
Anatomy of a Fall is set in a snowy chalet in the mountains near Grenoble. Sandra Hüller is superb as a well-known writer, who mixes details from her personal life into her fictional stories: her work often blurs the line between the two. As the film starts she is being interviewed by an enthusiastic student – until the interview is made impossible by her less-successful husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) in the attic blasting out a raucous steel-drum cover by a German funk ensemble, the Bacao Rhythm Steel Band, of 50 Cent’s P.I.M.P. on deafening repeat. Sandra does not ask him to stop, instead she abandons the interview.
Their young, visually impaired son Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner) takes his dog Snoop out for a walk and returns to find the dead body of his father on the snow below the attic window, looking as if he had fallen.
That’s the set-up. The rest of the film is a rivetting, twisty courtroom drama (a bit like Saint Omer, also the trial of a woman) taken up with Sandra’s trial, when she is accused of Samuel’s murder. She needs to convince the court that her husband’s fall could have been an accident or suicide to be acquitted: expert evidence in court concentrates on the mechanics of did he fall or was he pushed? Meanwhile Sandra’s secrets are exposed publicly. Luckily, she has a sympathetic old friend who acts as her lawyer (Swann Arlaud).
Sandra is a complicated woman who has had several affairs over the course of the marriage: she is treated like a prime suspect in the case, and there follows a forensic legal inquiry into the crumbling of a marriage. Each witness tells their reality of the part of her personality they knew, and their view of her husband’s mental state, but they see only those parts of Sandra and Samuel that concern them personally or professionally, they don’t see the whole person or the context. In addition, there’s a surprise: Sandra’s dead husband had recorded a marital argument, which is humiliatingly played out posthumously (out of context) in court in front of her son, who is there observing.
Anatomy of a Fall was written by Triet and Arthur Harari (her partner). Triet uses close-ups of details, as Jane Campion does in her films. Music is used very notably throughout: apart from that significant track mentioned above which figures in the story, there’s Albéniz’s frenetic piano music played by Danial ((Asturias) Leyanda – also known as The Birds) – and some quiet Chopin Daniel and Sandra play together.
Language is also significant in Anatomy of a Fall. Sandra is a German/English translator married to a French man. They speak English together as a compromise, but it does not fully express either of them. The judge insists that court proceedings are conducted in French, in which Sandra is not as competent as English, and a court-appointed guardian will not allow her to speak English to Daniel.
During filming, Hüller asked Triet if Sandra was guilty but Triet would not say. As details come out in court, the truth remains grippingly ambiguous. The film keeps you guessing right to the end, and questioning everyone.
Anatomy of a Fall premiered at Cannes, where it won the Palme d’or and Palm Dog for Snoop, and is released on 10 November 2023 in the UK. Hüller also starred in Jonathan Glazer’s Zone of Interest, which won the Grand Prix at Cannes.