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'Anatomy of a Fall': A Cinematic Rorschach Test
This enthralling new film from director Justine Triet asks the viewer to join the jury on a murder trial.
Anatomy of a Fall, the enthralling new film from director Justine Triet, asks the viewer to join the jury on a murder trial. As the film opens, Sandra (Sandra Hüller), a novelist, is being interviewed in her home by a young journalist (Camille Rutherford). The interview is disrupted, however, when Sandra’s her husband, Samuel (Samuel Theis), begins to blast 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” on repeat from the attic, where he is carrying out renovations. The journalist leaves, agreeing to complete the interview on another day. Meanwhile, Sandra and Samuel’s partially-blind eleven-year-old son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), takes his dog out for a walk; when he returns, the music is still blaring at top volume, but his father is lying dead in the snow, bleeding from his skull. Daniel screams for his mother, who eventually runs outside to see the horrible tableau for herself. Sandra maintains that Samuel must have jumped from the attic window while she napped downstairs; the police assert that Sandra hit Samuel in the head with a heavy object and then pushed him from the window.
Anatomy of a Fall is technically a procedural and a courtroom thriller - but it’s hardly John Grisham schlock. The evidence of Sandra’s alleged crime - everything from DNA and blood splatter analysis to potentially-damning excerpts from Sandra’s semi-autobiographical fiction to an audio recording, captured the day before Samuel’s death, of a heated argument between the spouses - is laid out for the audience in a dry, objective manner. Whether not each item seems damning or circumstantial will likely be open to interpretation by each individual viewer.
Furthermore, there are no obvious good guys or bad guys. The characters could have been trite archetypes, but the top-notch cast - which also includes Jehnny Beth as a guardian appointed to look after Daniel, Antoine Reinartz as the prosecutor, and an especially excellent Swann Arlaud as Sandra’s lawyer - all deliver sensitive, understated performances, rendering their characters in three dimensions. Triet and her cinematographer, Simon Beaufils, capture these performances in with a subtle, journalist visual style, balancing the intimate with the unobtrusive. There’s not even a score to indicate how you should feel.
There is an eleventh hour development that turns the tide of the trial, but even that is presented in a manner that makes it feel extremely real. Anatomy of a Fall makes even the best courtroom dramas of the past feel overwrought.
The verisimilitude, absence of bathos, and refusal to traffic in uncomplicated morality is what makes Anatomy of a Fall so engaging. You do get to spend time with Sandra that a real juror would not, and her behavior and actions may add to your own judgment - but the movie still never tells you what to think. It is an captivating cinematic Rorschach test.
If that were all Anatomy of a Fall accomplished, it would be enough to recommend the movie. But Triet - who co-wrote the screenplay with her husband, Arthur Harari - also uses the narrative as a means of making the viewer reflect on their own inherent values. It’s difficult to discuss without giving away too much, but at the heart of the pre-mortem conflict between Sandra and Samuel are gender roles and personal beliefs about what we do or do not believe one spouse owes to another. And, once more, it’s not cut-and-dry. Is infidelity a violation of trust when one partner is withholding sex? If a child suffers a life-changing accident because a parent was late to pick them up from school, is that parent to blame? What is the proper ratio between pursuing one’s own needs and desires and being present for one’s family Anatomy of a Fall is virtually guaranteed to inspire lively debate, but I’d only be half-surprised if it was responsible for a couple of divorces as well.
Anatomy of a Fall won the Palme d'Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival - but it doesn’t have the same PR machine behind as certain other recently-released adult dramas. From what I’ve read, it has thus far done pretty well at the box office, but I still worry it’s the kind of movie that will escape too many filmgoers’ attention (like The Royal Hotel, another great film that seems to have already mostly-disappeared from theaters and water cooler discourse). I implore you to go see if you have a chance.