Running Time: 152 mins
UK Distributor: Picturehouse Entertainment
UK Release Date: 10 November 2023
WHO’S IN ANATOMY OF A FALL?
Sandra Hüller, Swann Arlaud, Milo Machado-Graner, Antoine Reinartz, Samuel Theis, Jehnny Beth, Saadia Bentaieb, Camille Rutherford, Anne Rotger, Sophie Fillières
WHO’S BEHIND THE CAMERA?
Justine Triet (director, writer), Arthur Harari (writer), Marie-Ange Luciani and David Thion (producers), Simon Beaufils (cinematographer), Laurent Sénéchal (editor)
WHAT’S IT ABOUT?
A woman (Hüller) goes on trial after her husband (Theis) mysteriously falls to his death…
WHAT ARE MY THOUGHTS ON ANATOMY OF A FALL?
It does not feel like a coincidence that Anatomy of a Fall, filmmaker Justine Triet’s acclaimed new courtroom drama, matches all but one word of the title of another well-regarded legal thriller from cinema history. Similar to Triet’s film, director Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder is a tense and wholly engrossing two-and-a-half-hour dissection of a deadly incident that, even after the facts are seemingly made clear, retains a sense of ambiguity when it comes to spelling out the whole truth.
Where Anatomy of a Fall differs from that classic courtroom film, however, is its unwavering focus on the deeply personal revelations being placed on the stand. It is, in addition to its legal narrative, a family drama rooted in devastation and anger, one that Triet expertly unravels with exact precision while, again, leaning into its ambiguous nature that makes it an evermore compelling film to watch.
The case involves a man named Samuel (Samuel Theis) who, during some work up in the attic of his chalet in the French Alps, seemingly falls to his death onto the front driveway, and is found by both his wife Sandra (Sandra Hüller), a successful writer, and their young visually-impaired son Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner). However, an investigation into Samuel’s death refuses to rule out foul play, putting Sandra under heavy suspicion and eventually on trial to determine whether or not she insinuated her husband’s fall. As Sandra’s lawyer friend Vincent (Swann Arlaud) attempts to defend her in court, numerous revelations about her marriage are unveiled by the ruthless prosecution lawyer (Antoine Reinartz) which suggest more than enough motivation to finally kill him, something she claims to be far from the truth.
What the truth actually is, however, is something that Triet cleverly never spells out entirely. As the trial plays out, we are given droplets of facts about her complex dynamic with her now-deceased husband, including overwhelming feelings of resentment towards him for his part in the tragic accident that claimed their son’s eyesight. However, not once does it feel like the filmmaker, who co-wrote the script with Arthur Harari, is making it too obvious about which outcome is ultimately the correct one.
You’re never entirely sure if Sandra is as innocent as she claims to be, or if she really did commit an act of murder, because Triet always keeps the viewer at a distance from this person, to where even in scenes comprised of just her alone it’s unclear whether her emotional outbursts are those of sorrow or relief. Furthermore, Sandra Hüller’s absolutely outstanding performance continuously blurs the line between her character being a sympathetic widow or a calculated sociopath, both options being viable thanks to a turn where she, under Triet’s tight-fit direction, never gives the viewer a definitive answer.
Triet keeps this aspect of the mystery almost entirely under wraps, focusing instead on how much the circumstances leading up to the inciting incident have taken their emotional toll on this family, and especially this marriage. The very first scene is a masterclass of discomfort, with an interview between Sandra and one of her literary students being constantly interrupted by the soon-to-be-unalived Samuel blasting an instrumental rendition of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P” through the house (incidentally, making this a far better use of that song than in Expend4bles, a movie that actually had 50 Cent in it).
Later, during a flashback triggered by a secret audio recording played in the courtroom, we see a pretty raw argument between Sandra and Samuel that brings to light a number of revelations about their strained relationship which, regardless of his eventual death, leaves neither one of them looking particularly saintly. These scenes play out with some unnervingly tight close-ups on characters’ faces, sometimes literally zooming in on the despair across their faces, forcing the viewer to absorb just how taxing these people have become to each other over time, not to mention how brutal their interactions were right up until his fall.
Then, there’s the matter of young Daniel, who has been forced into an incredibly delicate situation that would be emotionally devastating for any other young child. Never mind the fact that he’s grieving the sudden loss of his father, or even that his mother is on trial for his possible murder, but he is to some extent aware that his own circumstances have served as the catalyst for his parents’ breakdown of their marriage, inflicting a wave of guilt upon him that has clearly taken its toll.
After a point, though, it’s clear that Daniel, and by extension young actor Milo Machado-Graner’s gripping performance, is the film’s secret weapon, as he provides a perspective that is changing in real time as he sits in the courtroom listening to the disturbing accusations against his mother. This more or less matches the shifting opinions of the viewer, who is similarly unsure who or what to believe, but his combined feelings of grief and guilt add a whole other layer of intrigue as he, like perhaps his mother, is deciding which version of the truth he shall believe, both within the timeframe of this trial and then for the rest of his life.
The film is a smart and neatly complex combination of courtroom procedural and family drama, both of which are as gripping and even as intense as each other, with Triet rarely wasting a second of the two-and-a-half-hour runtime to set up the difficult scenario at play (though at times, you do get the feeling that maybe one or two scenes could have been slightly trimmed without losing the central point).
With its clever deconstruction of a bitter marriage buoyed by some excellent performances and a strikingly realistic filmmaking style, Anatomy of a Fall is a worthy title that might just shoot up there along with its three-quarter namesake as a formidable example of how to make the courtroom drama feel truly cinematic.
SO, TO SUM UP…
Anatomy of a Fall is a smart and excellently layered mix of an engrossing courtroom drama and a devastating family portrait, in which director and co-writer Justine Triet maintains a level of ambiguity that makes the central mystery feel more uncertain, while some outstanding performances by Sandra Hüller and her young co-star Milo Machado-Graner keep the uncertainty flowing throughout its slightly overlong runtime.