Cannes 2023 review: Anatomy of a Fall (Justine Triet)

“A little sharper writing would have turned Anatomy of a Fall into a masterpiece, but as it stands Triet’s film is a highly accomplished treatise on creative relationships and how they can be destructive not just to the people in the relationships but also to those in their periphery.”

Hiding underneath the riveting legal drama at the heart of Justine Triet’s fourth feature Anatomy of a Fall is not the question of guilt or innocence, but that of the ‘fall’ of a marriage and the shattering of a child’s innocence. A departure from her more lighthearted films to date, Triet approaches the relationship drama underpinning the courtroom thriller with a more serious tone than her previous work, even if she cannot escape drawing a few cheap laughs during its two-and-a-half-hour runtime. Eventually netting her the Palme d’Or, Anatomy of a Fall is above all a film about control, whether over a relationship in the story itself or the control of Triet’s tight hand over the film, and how our perceptions are often mired by not having all the information. Anchored by a magnificent (and bilingual) performance by Sandra Hüller, the film is accessible enough to become a box-office success, but also has enough pedigree (and the Palme certainly helps) to enjoy widespread critical acclaim.

As if to say that everything will eventually come falling down, Anatomy of a Fall opens with a ball bouncing down a flight of stairs, soon followed by an adorable border collie called Snoop. The setting is a chalet in the French Alps, owned by successful German writer Sandra Voyter (Hüller) and her less-successful writer husband Samuel (Samuel Theis, who will not appear until quite late in the film, in its most pivotal scene). Sandra is being interviewed by a young and adoring graduate student (Camille Rutherford) who seems oblivious to Sandra’s flirting. Perhaps it’s because of the music coming from upstairs, where Samuel is blaring an instrumental version of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” on repeat (those steel drums will be ringing in your head for days). It is clearly a spiteful act, but the reason for the spite remains hidden for a long time. Sandra cuts the interview short and retreats for some rest, and their 11-year-old, partially blind son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner) takes Snoop for a walk. When he returns he finds his dad underneath the chalet’s balcony, dead from a severe head wound.

It doesn’t take long for Sandra to become a murder suspect, though she vehemently denies having anything to do with her husband’s fall. She takes on an old friend (Swann Arlaud) as her lawyer, though whether he is a match for the shark of an Attorney General that handles the case (Antoine Reinartz) is doubtful. And there is the problem of Sandra’s alibi, or rather its absence. As the case progresses, gaps and cracks start to appear in her story, and reasonable doubt starts to creep in both for the viewer as well as her son. Triet withholds most of the information, although in such a way that we can’t know whether that is simply because there is none or because revealing it would sway our opinion about Sandra either way. Daniel’s impaired sight is a clear metaphor for the uncertainty about what has happened and the audience groping in the dark, no matter how much of a negative image the AG tries to paint, down to citing passages from Sandra’s novels that have parallels with her personal life.

As doubt creeps in, the distance between Daniel and Sandra grows and the young boy starts to find more solace in his relationship with Marge (Jehnny Beth), a state-appointed custodian brought in to make sure Sandra doesn’t have any influence on Daniel’s testimony. During the trial Daniel finds out that part of the rift between his parents originated in the accident that caused his eye problems, when Samuel was supposed to be looking out for the boy; Sandra has always held that against her husband. Eventually it will be Daniel’s testimony that sways the court, and it is his moment to leave the audience as well as his mother in doubt. The simplicity of his statement is a striking moment and the pinnacle of the courtroom scenes (and sadly also one of the moments Triet uses for comic relief), although the centrepiece of Anatomy of a Fall technically also happens there: as it turns out, Samuel made audio recordings of various moments in his life, and one such moment is a lengthy fight between him and his wife, presented in audio form in court but as a visual flashback of sorts to the viewer. The tense scene, which starts with a respectful difference of opinion but ends in a crackling shouting match and a physical altercation, is as powerful as it is damaging to Daniel, and Hüller and Theis build up the scene with tremendous control over the emotions of their characters.

The whole cast delivers: Arlaud as the introverted lawyer who seems to have a crush on his friend and client, Reinartz as the Attorney General on a mission, and the young Machado Graner who proves himself quite a discovery as the precocious Daniel whose idealistic picture of his parents’ relationship is shattered over the course of the film. Even Theis in his single scene manages to leave a deep impression. But the film belongs to Hüller, who turns in a masterful performance that would have deserved the Best Actress prize if it weren’t for the festival’s rules preventing the Palme d’Or film winning anything else. Performing in two languages (English and French), neither her own, Hüller manages to keep her Sandra ambiguous, and not the common protagonist in a courtroom drama who may be falsely accused. Her character is not necessarily one to root for without question, precisely because Hüller creates a full-fledged human being, warts and all.

The screenplay, co-penned by Triet with her life partner Arthur Harari (probably best known for his film Onoda: 10,000 Nights in the Jungle), provides Hüller with a framework and the freedom to build up her character. Because the screenplay is more interested in Sandra’s relationships to both Samuel and Daniel, and in where the former went wrong, Hüller is able to play off her character’s secrets and flaws. Triet draws out the story a bit too much, and despite the fireworks Reinartz and Arlaud provide in the courtroom scenes it is exactly there that she can’t escape the clichés of the genre: witnesses with predetermined opinions, a strained and dumbfounded judge, eager journalists outside the courthouse. In part these function to keep Hüller’s character ambiguous and well-rounded, but at times the scenes feel superfluous. A little sharper writing would have turned Anatomy of a Fall into a masterpiece, but as it stands Triet’s film is a highly accomplished look at creative relationships and how they can be destructive not just to the people in them but also to those in their periphery. Elevated by an astonishingly naturalistic performance, the film is destined to become a classic in the courtroom genre, but where it truly shines is as a relationship drama disguised in genre clothes.

(c) Image copyright: Les Films Pelléas / Les Films de Pierre