Tuesday, October 24, 2023


 by Rob DiCristino

Love means never having to say, “I’m sorry for throwing you off the roof.”

“Getting divorced with a kid is one of the hardest things to do. It’s like a death without a body,” laments a character in Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story. The analogy is a good one — without the catharsis of a pronounced ending, all that pain, resentment, and frustration stagnates and decays, looming over the concerned parties for the rest of their lives. But what if there was a death? What if there was a body? What if a family already on the brink of collapse was suddenly torn apart by disaster? Winner of the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall presents us with this very situation. When her husband, Samuel (Samuel Theis), is discovered dead outside of their chalet, Sandra (Toni Erdmann’s Sandra Hüller, also of this year’s The Zone of Interest) finds herself on trial for his murder. Medical examiners match head wounds with blood splatters, but they can’t decide if they came before or after he fell from a third-story window. Did the mercurial Samuel commit suicide, or did his embittered wife finally have enough?
Sandra maintains her innocence, but not even her lawyer (Swann Arlaud as Vincent) can deny that there was tension in the household. Just hours before Samuel’s death, in fact, celebrated novelist Sandra was forced to abandon a home interview with a student because her husband insisted on blasting music — specifically a steel drum cover of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.”, the misogynist overtones of which Vincent later notes in court — at full volume. Why so passive aggressive? Well, as in any relationship, it’s complicated: Samuel was stymied by professional failures and often complained that domestic life did not grant him the creative latitude to match his wife’s success. Perhaps listening to Sandra preen in front of another eager young supplicant would have been too much for his ego to bear. Perhaps he didn’t want to listen to her plant the seeds of yet another extramarital affair (Sandra later denies any flirtation, though she admits to stepping out on her husband on more than one occasion). Regardless, it ended up being the last volley in a fierce and protracted war.

Co-written by Triet and her husband, filmmaker Arthur Harari — I’ll let you unpack all that on your own time — Anatomy of a Fall uses the structure of a courtroom drama to excavate the root causes of Sandra and Samuel’s unhappiness. Vincent is matched up against a thundering prosecutor (a droll and often hilarious Antoine Reinartz) tasked with convincing the jury that Sandra is an unstable killer who manipulated her husband’s low self esteem and mental health issues for her own gain. He’s got a decent case, it has to be said: Samuel’s psychiatrist recounts a litany of complaints and grievances leveled at his wife during their sessions, and the court listens in perverse wonder as the prosecutor reads an excerpt from one of Sandra’s own novels in which a wife plots her husband’s murder. We even discover that Samuel was secretly recording their day-to-day lives — a last ditch effort to jog loose some literary inspiration, apparently — and kept detailed transcripts of their worst altercations. The results do not paint Sandra in a favorable light, to say the least.
But is Sandra guilty of murder? Avoiding the salaciousness so common to the genre, Triet plays those details close to the vest. There are no grand revelations that send the audience home with neat answers tied up in a bow. Instead, Triet emphasizes ambiguity, carefully choosing when to fill in the blanks and, crucially, which ones to leave unfilled. Like the jury, media, and curious public, we’re forced to sort through a mixture of tangible facts and subjective opinion while Sandra endures a surgical examination of her human failings. And while she’s largely unbothered by the scrutiny — Hüller gives Sandra a brilliant defiance that underscores our own culpability as an audience in this circus — Sandra does begin to waver when she loses the confidence of her eleven year-old son, Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner), who discovered Samuel’s body in the first place and stands to lose the most from his mother’s incarceration. Daniel’s vision was impaired after an accident — On Samuel’s watch, another bolt in Sandra’s arsenal of resentment — but he sees well enough to question Sandra’s alibi.
At 152 minutes, Anatomy of a Fall may grow tedious as it ambles through its final movements, but Triet’s attention to tone and character is so finely-crafted that we should forgive her the indulgences. The longer running time also gives us a better opportunity to catch the nuanced changes in Sandra’s story — She was “pissed off” at the blaring music but recants that emotion under oath — and gain a greater appreciation of how Triet plays with perspective, bias, and emotional reactivity. At times, we’ll be both suspicious of Sandra’s reticence to be forthcoming about intimate personal details and offended by a legal system that presumes she should be. We’ll track what Triet chooses to show us in objective flashback — including a symphonic tussle-turned-meltdown that finds Hüller and Theis firing on all cylinders — and what she leaves to hearsay and memory. Anatomy of a Fall is best in these moments, the times when it’s interrogating its text, subtext, and metatext all at once. Triet balances them all with grace and dexterity, delivering an eminently watchable family drama.

Anatomy of a Fall is in select theaters now.

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