Sandra Hüller in Justine Triet’s Mystery  

The latest evidence that today’s most interesting French movies are being directed by women, Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall (Anatomie d’une chute) marks an exciting step forward for a filmmaker who seems primed for greater international recognition.

Starring a sensational Sandra Hüller as a German novelist on trial for the murder of her husband, this second Cannes competition entry from Triet (following 2019’s Sibyl) is a gripping and gratifyingly rich drama: part legal procedural, part portrait of a complicated woman, part snapshot of a marriage on the brink and part coming-of-age narrative. Anatomy of a Fall is, above all, about the essential unknowability of a person, of a relationship, and the perilous impossibility of trying to understand — whether it’s a child puzzling over his parents or a courtroom straining to make sense of an inscrutable suspect. In other words, it’s a film concerned with storytelling — the stories we tell others about ourselves and those we, as individuals and a society, tell ourselves about others.

Anatomy of a Fall

The Bottom Line

A director and actress in peak form.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
Cast: Sandra Hüller, Swann Arlaud, Milo Machado Graner, Antoine Reinartz, Samuel Theis, Jehnny Beth
Director: Justine Triet
Screenwriters: Justine Triet, Arthur Harari

2 hours 30 minutes

If the faintest whiff of “why this movie, now, from this director?” wafts through the early going, Anatomy of a Fall ultimately serves as a bracing corrective to the sensationalism and glibness of so much crime-themed content these days. This is a nuanced work, resisting the teasing, Kabuki-like quality that characterizes even “prestige” efforts like HBO’s recent The Staircase (based on a real-life case that shares broad outlines and a few specifics with the fictional one here). The movie also mounts a subtle but pointed rebuke of a certain entrenched — and perhaps to some, surprising — cultural conservatism in France, particularly when it comes to gender and family.

It’s a low-key flex from Triet. Both Sibyl (in which Hüller played an amusing supporting role) and Anatomy of a Fall revolve around female writers whose instinctive refusal to be boxed in by convention lands them in hot water. But the earlier film mashed up bedroom farce, melodrama, noir and erotic thriller with a doodling abandon that was more fun in theory than practice. Anatomy of a Fall is a much more pleasurable watch — a bit paradoxically, given the movie’s grave subject, no-nonsense directorial control and commitment to plausibility. Though she makes the story distinctively her own, Triet doesn’t attempt anything wild here, which proves wise; why tinker with material this juicy or upstage a lead actress this formidable?

Co-written by Triet and Arthur Harari, the film opens at a chalet in a snowy suburb of Grenoble, in the French Alps. Sandra (Hüller), a 40ish German writer who lives there with French husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) and their 11-year-old son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), is being interviewed by a graduate student (Camille Rutherford).

Suddenly, music — an instrumental version of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.,” to be exact — begins blasting from Samuel’s office in the attic, making it impossible to continue the interview. It’s an unmistakably provocative gesture, suggesting a marriage mired in petty antagonism, and Sandra’s annoyance is palpable beneath her efforts to brush it off. She says goodbye to the student and heads upstairs, while Daniel — whose vision is impaired because of an accident years earlier — takes his dog for a walk. When the boy returns, his dad is dead on the ground outside the house, blood pooling beneath his head (and 50 Cent still blaring on a loop).

Did Samuel jump from the attic window? Or fall? Did Sandra push him? Those questions drive the film’s simmering tension, though Triet is less interested in answers than in the lack thereof, the effect of uncertainty — of not knowing how or why Samuel died — on the shattered young Daniel, who becomes a sort of surrogate for the viewer. As he says, his voice thick with tears: “I have to understand.”

Anatomy of a Fall is incisive in its depiction of a legal system’s tendency to fill in the blanks of a case with assumptions and fantasies, here of an often sexist nature. But what haunts the movie most transfixingly, giving it its charge of shivery obsessiveness, is the matter of how to perceive Sandra. She insists on her innocence, though she doesn’t have an alibi or check the boxes of the usual wrongly accused hero. And, crucially, the filmmaker doesn’t grant us any assurances, any privileged access to information that would allow us to form a truly confident opinion.

Huller is such a vivid, precise performer that we understand Sandra, an intellectual who has negotiated the terms of domestic life to make it work for her. But Richard Kimble she’s not. We can’t be sure what Sandra did or didn’t do, and Triet challenges us to accept that without giving up on her. In most films that rely on suspense as to whether a main character is guilty or innocent — from Hitchcock’s Suspicion to Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place to Jagged Edge and Basic Instinct — there’s some buffer of comfort, a co-protagonist we can take refuge in. Not here.

The prevailing sense of ambiguity extends to Sandra’s relationship with her lawyer, Vincent (Swann Arlaud, underplaying beautifully), an old friend who comes to her aid but may be nursing ulterior motives — or at least unspoken feelings — of his own. Telling him her side of the story, Sandra seems protective of Samuel, a frustrated writer and part-time teacher, maintaining that he wouldn’t have killed himself. But with an inconclusive autopsy — his death could have been caused by either the collision with the ground or a blow to the head before the fall — Vincent notes that the suicide hypothesis is their safest defense.

Cracks in Sandra’s case multiply, some of which indicate she hasn’t been entirely forthcoming: bruises on her arm consistent with a struggle; a blood spatter analysis inferring violence; discrepancies in Daniel’s recounting of events; the discovery of an audio recording of Sandra and Samuel fighting the day before he died.

There are also logistical peculiarities. Since Daniel is taking the stand but lives under the care of the accused, a state-appointed chaperone, Marge (Jehnny Beth), is sent to basically babysit him, ensuring that Sandra doesn’t sway his testimony. The bond of trust that Daniel and Marge gradually build in the background stands in quiet contrast to the widening distance between the boy and his mother.

The trial scenes unfold with riveting authenticity. Though Triet nods slyly at tropes of the genre — bullying prosecutor (Antoine Reinartz, excellent), harried judge (Anne Rotger), overzealous expert witnesses, eleventh-hour revelation — nothing is artificially amplified or underlined. Absent are the gasp-inducing gotchas and crescendos of righteous indignation that are hallmarks of American courtroom classics like Anatomy of a Murder, The Verdict and Witness for the Prosecution (not to mention that exemplar of tribunal theatrics, A Few Good Men).

Rather, Anatomy is focused on the slippery interplay between character and legal process — the ways the latter obscures and distorts the former, as well as the ways the former adapts to the latter. Hüller exudes a prickly intelligence, but makes you wonder — via minute variations in tone and expression — if Sandra is slightly softening her persona in and out of court, playing the game she needs to play once she realizes what’s at stake. The actress also locates Sandra’s core of genuine vulnerability: Though she speaks fluent English and French, she is still — as she remarks — an outsider in France, unable to explain herself in her mother tongue.

Sandra’s feelings of being misunderstood come to a head when the court turns to her marriage, a once-electric connection corroded by professional rivalry, sexual jealousy and stressors both quotidian and existential. The one flashback we get of the couple — a dispute in which long-held resentments rise to a furious boil — is among the most persuasive, powerfully unsettling scenes of conjugal strife I’ve seen onscreen. Theis plays Samuel with a terrifyingly raw anguish, while Hüller shows us a woman seesawing between desperation to salvage her relationship and anger at the prospect of curbing her ambition to accommodate her husband’s wounded ego.

Working with DP Simon Beaufils, Triet shoots in a style of dynamic realism that’s a high-wire balancing act: The film doesn’t manipulate our sympathies, nor does it feel clinical or detached thanks to fluid shifts in perspective that pull us closer to the characters caught up in the ordeal — particularly Daniel. In one scene, the camera ping-pongs back and forth with Daniel in the middle as lawyers tussle over his testimony; in another, as the boy listens to an investigator theorize that Samuel was murdered, the screen flashes with images of Sandra striking him.

These heightened moments position Daniel as the film’s emerging emotional compass, and Graner is wrenching as a child at an agonizingly adult crossroads. Without finger-wagging or grandstanding, Triet points to the uncomfortable necessity of being able to live in, and with, the gray area — for her characters and viewers alike. Guiding us through the morass of elusive memories, ever-evolving accounts and unreliable narrators in this fascinating, deeply intelligent film, she pulls off the trickiest feat of all: earning our complete and total trust.

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