Director: Justine Triet
Writers: Justine Triet and Arthur Harari
Cast: Sandra Hüller, Swann Arlaud, Milo Machado Graner, Antoine Reinartz, Samuel Theis, Jehnny Beth, Saadia Bentaïeb, Camille Rutherford, Anne Rotger and Sophie Fillières
Run-time: 152 minutes
Available in: Theatres
About an hour-and-a-half into Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall (2023), we hear an audio recording of a fight between Samuel (Samuel Theis) — his dead body was discovered at the foot of the couple’s alpine chalet at the beginning of the film — and his wife, Sandra (Sandra Hüller). She is presently standing trial for her husband’s murder and has to endure a private confrontation being laid out on a platter for the hungry public in a courtroom to dissect. The word ‘anatomy’ in the film’s title, a nod to the 1959 courtroom drama Anatomy of a Murder, speaks to this dissection.
In her fight with Samuel, which occurred a day before his mysterious death and was secretly recorded by Samuel himself, Sandra has no time or sympathy for Samuel’s woes. Samuel talks about the uneven division of labour between them, how he is forced to take up the bulk of the emotional load to make space for Sandra’s career. Sandra, cold and cutting in her responses, refuses to apologise for her ambition, shutting down each of Samuel’s grievances by turning the blame around on him. Sandra and Samuel’s troubled marriage allows Triet to raise uncomfortable questions through this reversal of traditional gender roles. Is Samuel, who has been the ‘wife’ in this marriage, justified? Is it Sandra’s unapologetic stance that makes her more credible as a murder suspect, or our general discomfort around a woman who is arrogantly assertive (and thus, masculine) with her husband, rather than being conciliatory or submissive?
Over the course of the film, every aspect of Sandra’s life and marriage is picked apart and scrutinised in forensic detail, the tension in the air thick enough to slice, a relentless quest to arrive at the truth. But is the truth ever that simple?
Set against the snowy backdrop of the French alps, Anatomy of a Fall is an unusual marriage of multiple genres. It begins as a whodunit when Sandra and Samuel’s visually-impaired son Daniel (a brilliant Milo Machado Graner) chances upon his father’s dead body. Sandra is the prime suspect as she and Samuel were the only ones in the chalet at the time of his death. The ensuing investigation throws into sharp relief the secrets and tension that characterised Sandra and Samuel’s marriage, painting Sandra in an unflattering and incriminating light. But Triet refuses to victimise her heroine. And Sandra is far from the perfect victim.
As the case continues, Anatomy of a Fall goes from being an increasingly-slack murder mystery to an edge-of-the-seat courtroom drama. Fittingly for a film written by and about an author couple, Anatomy of Fall is verbose. If you’re expecting a conventional thriller, there’s disappointment in store. There are twists in this tale, but they’re mostly conceptual. The film provokes the audience to examine how willing we are to believe and root for a protagonist who comes across as abrasive, even unlikeable — especially if she’s a woman.
Sandra doesn’t cut a traditionally feminine, maternal figure. She freely admits to craving intellectual stimulation even when it meant neglecting everything else (the “even her family” is left unsaid). Her gait is clunky and awkward, she can’t be bothered to smile at strangers, and at one point, it almost seems like she is an intruder in a moment between her son and his godmother — both speaking in French, a language that is not Sandra's own. Samuel, in contrast, fulfils more feminine tropes. He took on domestic work and maintained a close relationship with his son. He was a writer who felt consistently unable to bring himself to write, a string of abandoned projects littered in his wake.
Hüller — who has been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress — flits from matter-of-fact composure to aching vulnerability with ease. Unflappably honest and yet curiously inscrutable, Sandra is a German woman and a successful author who moved to her husband’s French hometown upon his insistence. “Didn't realise it was so high”, says Sandra’s lawyer friend Vincent (Swann Arlaud) when he visits the chalet after Samuel’s death. “Yes,” sighs Sandra. Hüller suffuses all of a woman’s frustration and resignation into that one syllable.
Triet has described Hüller as possessing a “transparent opacity” — the two have worked together previously in Sibyl (2019) — and this is utilised to great effect in Anatomy of a Fall. Often, it feels like Sandra is too honest for her own good. She resists Vincent’s efforts to make her appear agreeable in court, discomfited by the clinicality of the process. “You need to see yourself as others are going to perceive you,” Vincent tells her. Sandra, however, stands firm, refusing to bend to artifice. When her extramarital affairs with other women are brought out in court, she openly admits to them without an ounce of regret. When she struggles to express herself in French, Sandra says, “It's too complicated. Can I change the language, please?” — forcing everyone in the courtroom to use translating devices to accommodate her instead.
The film’s screenplay ebbs and flows in its pace, unravelling during the moments in the mountains and tightening up in the courtroom sequences. The dialogue, a combination of French and English, is compelling. Triet’s use of sound and silence is masterful, particularly in the moments when Samuel’s body is discovered: The loud music he was playing contrasts with the stillness of the mountains, as jarring as his red blood on the white snow. Violence is a subtle thread running through Anatomy of a Fall. As the audio recording of Sandra and Samuel’s fight is played in court, the film gives us a visual flashback, but sharply cuts back to only sound — the sound of something, someone being hit — just when it turns violent. We are left to rely on our imagination to make sense of the grunts, gasps and shattering of glass.
This flashback is the only time we hear Samuel’s voice. The videos that Sandra pensively watches after his death are muted. In another flashback, we see Samuel moving his lips while Daniel narrates to the court what his father actually said. Triet has pointed out that the song played on repeat in the film’s opening, an instrumental version of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P”, becomes “the words of the absent, the words of the dead … the only direct sound that is emitted by Samuel as he’s alive.” The sense of mystery shrouding Samuel serves to heighten Sandra’s own murkiness. Every so often, the blindfold shifts and we think we see the truth. Then the film reminds us that we’re still in the dark.
The truth is a messy thing in Anatomy of a Fall. We see one witness explain their theory behind Samuel’s death with utmost conviction. The next witness is confident that it is their version of events that is accurate. Facts are few and unhelpful, and the film highlights how malleable they can be, how dependent upon perspective. Reality, fiction and fantasy come together in ways that are often frustrating in their uncertainty. Some in the courtroom pass moral judgement based on limited evidence and preconceived notions. Outside, the public views the trial from a cool distance, speculating about the case as though those involved aren’t real people.
We are told that Sandra borrows from her own experiences when writing: “My books are linked to my life and those in it.” One of her stories explores two alternate realities — one in which the protagonist’s brother is dead, and one in which he isn’t. (Schrödinger’s brother, if you will.) Ultimately, the court makes its decision, but the film does not offer up a neat ending. Two realities co-exist before us: Sandra is innocent, Sandra is guilty. It is simply a question of which you choose to be true.