Anatomy of a Fall

2023's Palme d'Or-winner is a stunning exploration of truth and trust, as led by a complex performance by Oscar-nominee Sandra Hüller.
Sarah Ward
Published on January 24, 2024


UPDATE, Friday, June 21, 2024: Anatomy of a Fall is available to stream via Stan, YouTube Movies, iTunes and Prime Video.


The calypso instrumental cover of 'P.I.M.P.' isn't the only thing that Anatomy of a Fall's audience can't dislodge from their heads after watching 2023's deserving Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or-winner and 2024's five-time Oscar-nominee. A film that's thorny, knotty and defiantly unwilling to give any easy answers, this legal, psychological and emotional thriller about a woman on trial for her husband's death is unshakeable in as many ways as someone can have doubts about another person: so, a myriad. This is a movie about truth that's really a feature about trust and perception. Indeed, delivering a definitive solution and explanation isn't filmmaker Justine Triet's focus. Helming her fourth full-length picture and becoming an Academy Award contender for Best Director in the process, the French talent doesn't serve up neat true crime-style closure, either, but she unflinchingly knows that the world has been conditioned to want every query and mystery — every uncertainty as well — wrapped up conclusively and categorically.

The scenario conjured up by Age of Panic, Victoria and Sibyl's Triet is deeply haunting, asking not only if her protagonist Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller, Sisi & I) committed murder, as the on-screen investigation and courtroom proceedings interrogate, but digging into what it means to be forced to choose between whether someone did the worst or is innocent — or if either matters. While the Gallic legal system and its specifics provide the backdrop for much of the Anatomy of a Fall, the real person doing the real picking isn't there in a professional capacity, or on a jury. Rather, it's 11-year-old Daniel (Milo Machado Graner, Alex Hugo), who has a visual impairment, finds his dad Samuel (Samuel Theis, Softie) in the snow with a head injury outside their French Alps home on an otherwise ordinary day, then becomes the key witness in his mum's case. Returning from a walk with his dog Snoop, the boy didn't see what happened, but he's the closest thing that detectives have to an onlooker.

Novelist and translator Sandra is introduced with that clanging version of one of 50 Cent's best-known songs echoing, a graduate student (Camille Rutherford, The Night of the 12th) interviewing her about her work and successful career in the family's remote chalet and, as he undertakes renovations upstairs, teacher Samuel turning up the soundtrack to distracting levels. Within an hour in the film's timeline and mere minutes for viewers, the latter will be dead via a fall from the home's topmost floor. When the inquiries start, Sandra says that she was asleep post-chat. Already, a wealth of details give rise to questions. Was Samuel blasting tunes to sabotage his wife's discussion? Also, why that particular track? Sipping wine as she talked, was the bisexual Sandra flirting? Did that raise her husband's ire? Do his and her actions alike that day scream volumes about the state of their marriage? Did she really not hear the incident? Was it an accident, suicide or was she responsible? Anatomy of a Fall is always a film about questions, too — and the reality that, in life-and-death situations and everyday circumstances, they never stop springing in any relationship.

The police can't make a clearcut decision either way based on the available evidence, hence the presumption of murder, Sandra as the prime suspect and the shift to court. Fittingly co-writing the script with her IRL partner Arthur Harari (Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle), Triet's poising of Anatomy of a Fall's opening moments as fuel for scrutinising Sandra and Samuel's union is savvy is another way: it sets up an entire feature where their wedded bliss — or lack thereof, as quickly becomes apparent — is probed, audited and analysed. The stakes are immense, but pondering how any long-term romance can hold up to such a dissection is one of the film's many takeaways. The questions swirl again, sifting through infidelities, guilt over the accident that caused Daniel to lose his sight, the division of household tasks, gender roles, mental health, professional rivalries, at-any-cost moves, past fights and how the couple's son was caught in the middle long before he's now asked to say whether his father, who homeschooled him, was killed by his mother.

A picture as intelligent and exacting as this — and as taut, tense and tenacious — isn't short of unforgettable elements. Again, the whole feature earns that description, as does its unpacking of intimate connections. Also high on the list: the performances that are so crucial in telling this tale of marital and parental bonds, especially from one of Germany's current best actors. Although her similarly astonishing portrayal in The Zone of Interest is following Anatomy of a Fall to screens Down Under, arriving in February 2024, Toni Erdmann and I'm Your Man's Hüller is two for two in movies that initially debuted globally in 2023, collected awards at Cannes (The Zone of Interest picked up the Grand Prix, aka second place in the festival's official competition), rightly received Oscar attention and are anchored by her complex portrayals of women who refuse to meet anyone's expectations but their own.

Here, she steps into an icy and complicated figure's shoes with the same surgical precision that Triet applies to rifling through the character's home life (that Sandra would rather speak English with her spouse despite him being French and them living in France isn't just a minor tidbit). In flashbacks to disagreements with Samuel and with her freedom on the line, Anatomy of a Fall's accused is unwaveringly unapologetic in her insistence to put herself first — as it's plain that both the prosecutor (Antoine Reinartz, Irma Vep) and defence attorney (Swann Arlaud, About Joan) on the case can see — and Hüller at her steeliest best, always devastatingly naturalistically so, is formidable in the part. She's the one with the Academy Award nod for acting; however, the up-and-coming French talent playing her son is also exceptional. In fact, as Daniel, who couldn't be more conflicted about the nightmare situation that he's been thrust into, Graner is a revelation, frequently via his expressive face and posture alone.

If Scenes From a Marriage met Kramer vs Kramer, plus 1959's Anatomy of a Murder that patently influences Anatomy of a Fall's name, this would be the gripping end result. Tearing into a relationship — and tearing it apart — feels nothing less than brutal in Triet's hands; every realisation about human nature in love and life that resounds along the way feels decidedly accurate, though. There's an aspect of Gone Girl to her masterful feature, too. While this isn't a film with a "cool girl" monologue, the societal expectations placed upon women, and on mothers, are firmly pushed to the fore. Take note of the fact that cinematographer Simon Beaufils (Antoinette in the Cévennes) is often looking up at Hüller as well: whatever Sandra did or didn't do, whatever Daniel does or doesn't choose to believe, and wherever audiences land — again, there's no simple resolution here — being a victim, or allowing herself to be seen that way, isn't part of the character's anatomy.


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