Credit: Courtesy of TIFF
Justine Triet’s thoroughly engaging Anatomy of a Fall examines the way information reveals character, and vice versa, during an unfolding murder trial. Sandra, a German novelist played by Sandra Hüller, is accused of killing her husband, Samuel (Samuel Theis), at their isolated French cabin. A year later in the courtroom, their relationship is placed under a microscope, carefully scrutinized and picked apart for all the world to see. This includes their blind adolescent son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), the only witness to his father’s death; Daniel also found Samuel’s body after he seemingly fell from a high window, leaving odd blood-spatter patterns nearby and dying on impact.
However, before any of the plot unfolds, Triet and co-writer Arthur Harari lure us in with mementos and pieces of music, including perhaps the most amusing and absurd use of a 50 Cent song in recent memory; an instrumental version of his upbeat, energetic 2003 single “P.I.M.P” is an important plot point! Alongside the courtroom dialogue, these details play an equally vital part in unearthing the characters’ identities, insecurities, and — if such a thing is possible — their truest selves.
The film features riveting performances and courtroom scenes.In response to the French ministère public and its ruthless public prosecutor (Antoine Reinartz), Sandra is forced to undertake legal strategies that conflict with her own outlook on Samuel. This causes crises of conscience for both her and Daniel, who grows increasingly unsure of what to believe.
When Sandra stands trial, she’s forced to speak broken French — her husband’s mother tongue but her third language; she occasionally slips into English — which keeps her on the back foot during most of the movie. Her attorney, Vincent (Swann Arlaud), is a personal friend to them both, and so he’s left with little choice but to approach Samuel’s death as a suicide, since an accidental fall from his attic workshop seems hard to prove to a jury. With her freedom on the line, she has little choice but to go along with this narrative; it leaves a sour taste in her mouth, but it soon helps her see Samuel in a new light as well.
These unexpected layers to each character aren’t plot twists per se since they don’t follow the typical set-up/pay-off structure, but rather, they’re narrative zigzags that help reframe existing events and the way the audience sees the couple’s marriage. In fact, all we ever see of Samuel are reconstructions; he isn’t presented to us on screen until after he dies, and all we’re let in on are other people’s memories of him, and Triet’s visualization of covert recordings he took of some of his arguments with Sandra.
With their marriage having been on the rocks for some time, perhaps more than either the audience or Daniel realized, Sandra comes increasingly under attack, as Reinartz slithers his way through each accusatory monologue, fighting a righteous battle that still makes him come off as utterly detestable. It also helps that Hüller, in her role as Sandra, attempts to strike a cautious balance between the character’s public and private selves, though she often slips up and cracks under pressure. It’s a deeply vulnerable performance, one that doesn’t just stew in the grief of a spouse’s death and the anxiety of being accused of his murder, but one that makes this an ongoing process, leaving her at the end of her rope. When the character, in a private moment, says, “I’m so tired of crying. It’s really ridiculous, it’s so exhausting,” you fully believe that the movie’s premise — to which we’ve just been introduced — has been chipping away at her for a year.
However, the film’s secret weapon is arguably Machado Graner, a child performer who takes on a monumentally mature task, embodying not only the uncontrollable agony of loss but the character’s confusion and suspicion surrounding what’s left of his family. Nobody wants to believe their mother is a murderer, let alone that their parents’ marriage was far from perfect. But Daniel is so desperate to have some kind of solid ground beneath his feet that he’s willing to embrace any possibility, even the most monstrous one, if it means having some kind of certainty again. Machado Graner, therefore, grasps at all possible outcomes as soon as they arise, though each new piece of evidence only seems to further confuse Daniel, forcing the young actor into a constant state of searching — that, too, without the use of the character’s sight.
Triet keeps the camera transfixed on Daniel during several court scenes, using only his reactions and the dialogue of the other characters just off-screen to guide the movement of her camera, which swoops around him as new information is thrown his way. This departure from the film’s otherwise traditional cinematic form not only adds a sense of realism to his experience but disorients the viewer in the process. It also keeps Machado Graner in the frame as much as possible, tethering us to his fragility.
However, while the performances and dialogue help make explicit the various characters’ conundrums and internal mindsets, many of the design details, and the implications of certain questions, tend to shift the subtext of the trial itself, which becomes its own fluid character of sorts. The longer it goes on, the more all-encompassing the prosecution gets, targeting not only Sandra and Samuel’s marriage but their respective literary careers, their relationship with their son, and even Sandra’s femininity and sexuality.
Anatomy of a Fall puts Sandra’s femininity on trial.At the outset, the trial follows the physical evidence of Samuel’s death, but when things don’t add up conclusively either way, it takes on a more pointed narrative. Sandra, the film casually reveals, is bisexual, something of which her family has always been aware, but it’s an element of her background used to poison the court of public opinion against her when questions of her infidelity arise. Earlier in the day of Samuel’s death, she’s interviewed by a young female reporter, and their interactions — which seem flirtatious, but only casually so — become evidence as well, of implied impropriety and potential arguments between the couple. (Samuel also seemingly sabotages this interview by playing “P.I.M.P.” at an unreasonable volume.)
This is the more explicit way Sandra’s femininity is put on trial, suggesting a sort of scheming duplicity, though there are some more implicit ways too, which are equally if not more sinister. For one thing, her success is held against her. She thrived at a time when Samuel found himself in professional limbo. This subplot certainly picks up more nuance along the way, revealing Samuel to be a dynamic if troubled character, but it can’t help but play at times like the centerpiece of the entire trial, forcing us to read even the prosecutor’s viciousness as some form of overcompensation. No statement he makes directly hints at this, but editor Laurent Sénéchal’s rhythmic, whip-smart assembly of the courtroom scenes leaves room for the possibility, given where and how his reaction shots seem to manifest.
Despite a completely self-assured performance from Reinartz, the cinematic language on display pokes the tiniest of holes in what seems like a known quantity — a perspective and motivation that feels entirely certain. We know what the prosecutor wants, just as we know what every character wants, but subtle elements of doubt creep their way in from the edges of the screen. Similarly, the way Sandra presents herself (which is to say, the way she is designed and presented) seems poised to introduce similar doubts, though these are likely to be held by the audience rather than any specific character. Her short haircut and gray pantsuits are the antithesis of an archetypical image of Western femininity, the kind that, in a courtroom narrative, might seek to please a more conservative jury.
The film doesn’t get into the jurors as individuals, but it becomes hard not to wonder whether someone on the bench might view Sandra more disdainfully for her queerness, or might even subconsciously read her, thanks to her subtly masculine appearance, as someone inherently more capable of brutality. Ultimately, every bit of evidence comes down to this and similar biases, and even as an audience, it’s hard not to reckon with some of the notions the film puts forth, whether or not it plants seeds of doubt in the viewers’ minds.
Justine Triet’s use of sound is sensational.Anatomy of a Fall doesn’t depend on Sandra’s guilt or innocence to be effective. In fact, its narrative perspective seems to endorse one version of facts and events early on, while its lingering questions tend to surround the way various interpretations of those facts and events will inevitably impact the case. The film is, in a way, an anthropological guessing game as much as it is a winding drama, with clues in the form of physical details and bits of information that seem to ask, “How does this make Sandra look to the jury? And what about to her son?”
One particularly tongue-in-cheek way it achieves this is through music, and more specifically, through frequent instrumental repetition of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” The first time it shows up, it’s an annoyance, or perhaps even an instigator, designed to interrupt or sabotage. The song choice doesn’t really matter at first, when Samuel plays it in the opening scene during Sandra’s interview — it’s an absurd happenstance that plays subtly on early-2000s nostalgia — but when the track becomes a piece of evidence in the case, all its potential meanings must be parsed by necessity, in case some sort of insight can be gleamed, no matter how minor.
At first, doing so seems like an exercise in absurdity, but meeting the movie on its own terms seems to open up a whole world of possible interpretations, no matter how bizarre. There is, as the prosecutor notes, the song’s sexually provocative nature, which immediately reframes her interview in a specific context that may not have previously existed, and there are numerous such possible readings that could shed new light on the case while being equally ridiculous.
Do the song’s absent lyrics, like “I don’t know what you heard about me” or “But a bitch can’t get a dollar out of me,” inadvertently inform the movie’s themes of innuendo and speculation, or its suspicions surrounding Samuel’s life insurance? Do its Caribbean steel drums — an immediate contrast with Sandra and Samuel’s frigid surroundings — speak to some kind of desire to escape? And is the title of the album it belongs to, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, just an unfortunate irony given Samuel’s dwindling career, or does it, too, gesture at some sort of cryptic intent on his behalf? All of this feels like too much inquiry into a single, amusing detail, but it’s a detail that recurs constantly, in a film whose plot is overflowing with characters analyzing any and every possibility if it means coming a step closer to some kind of truth, whether legal or spiritual.
Perhaps the meaning behind the song’s use is as unknowable as the question of whether it’s something we ought to be looking at in the first place. The only way to make sense of all the contradictory evidence is to accept this contradiction, because otherwise its unknowability can drive one mad — as it nearly does Daniel, a young character desperate for the reprieve of a familiar pattern that makes sense. As much as Sandra’s world is turned upside down, his is thrown into similar disarray, as evidenced by another musical cue he tries to recall on the piano — Isaac Albéniz’s entrancing Asturias (Leyenda) — but fails to play completely, as if some of its notes have grown just beyond his reach.
It’s an external arrhythmia that represents Daniel’s innermost thoughts, which he can barely form or share with those around him. He hasn’t yet learned to parse information the way the adults around him have, but watching him slowly learn to do so is among the most gripping parts of the Anatomy of a Fall — alongside the growing possibility that he might come to conclusions that damage his relationship with Sandra. She knows this too, and as she glances over to him constantly during the trial, the question of what will become of mother and son becomes just as pressing and emotionally intriguing as who killed the father.
Anatomy of a Fall was reviewed out of Cannes, where it won the Palme d’Or. It opens in theaters Oct. 13.
Siddhant Adlakha is a film critic and entertainment journalist originally from Mumbai. He currently resides in New York, and is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle.