Anatomy of a Fall review – electric Palme d’Or-winning courtroom thriller – The Guardian

A tantalising screenplay keeps the audience guessing in Justine Triet’s gripping French drama in which superb lead actor Sandra Hüller plays a woman suspected of her husband’s murder
To fully understand a marriage you need to be a part of it. And even then it can seem as if the two partners are communicating in entirely different languages. This is literally the case in the marriage of successful German-born author Sandra (a phenomenal Sandra Hüller) and her French husband, aspiring writer Samuel (Samuel Theis), a union that is forensically and microscopically examined in Justine Triet’s gripping, sinuous, Cannes Palme d’Or-winning courtroom drama Anatomy of a Fall. Language – Sandra prefers to speak in English even though, at her husband’s behest, they live in France – is just one of the flashpoints for tension between the two.
These tensions might have just simmered on privately and indefinitely, within the walls of the couple’s partially renovated alpine chalet, but for the fact that Samuel is found dead, discovered by the couple’s visually impaired 11-year-old son, Daniel (a terrific, painfully conflicted turn from talented young actor Milo Machado Graner), having fallen from the attic window. An inconclusive inquest into the death can’t rule out the possibility that he was pushed. And so Sandra finds herself on trial, with her child called as one of the key witnesses in the case. The flaws and faultlines in her relationship with Samuel are exposed and picked over by a tenacious prosecution lawyer (Antoine Reinartz) and repackaged as evidence for her guilt.
Perhaps more than most genres, the courtroom drama succeeds or fails on the strength of its screenplay. And here, with its layered and rewardingly intricate script co-written by Triet and her husband, Arthur Harari, this solid, unshowy film excels. Nodding to courtroom dramas such as Kramer vs Kramer and Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (an inspiration in more than just title), and to the more recent example of Alice Diop’s compelling Saint Omer, it’s a slippery thing, a teasingly complex framework that repeatedly tips the audience off balance and taps into our biases and assumptions.
A genre that can be prone to stuffiness and overly waffly dialogue, the courtroom drama here is electric, restlessly dynamic and compulsively watchable, with only a few rare moments in which the film’s throttling hold on the audience loosens. It’s a considerable step up for Triet, whose previous work includes the frothy, more overtly comic In Bed With Victoria and the uneven character study Sibyl.
Marriage, the film suggests, is like a mosaic. One or two highly coloured tiles might catch the eye but they can’t, on their own, show the whole picture. The reports we get of Sandra and Samuel’s life together (there is only one flashback in the film; most of what we learn comes from the evidence presented in the court) suggest a relationship that gets chillier and spikier by the minute. But then the prosecution’s case relies on cherrypicking the trauma and the deep-seated unhappiness in the marriage, and foregrounding the character traits in Sandra that might make her capable of murder. A choice of other, sunnier moments, as Sandra reasonably points out, would paint an entirely different picture of her relationship with her husband.
Even with that in mind, however, there’s plenty of ammunition for the prosecution. As with Saint Omer, it’s more than just a woman on trial here. Just as Diop’s drama wove into its court case an examination of race, class and the status of the female migrant in French society, so Triet seeds the film with questions about divisions of labour, about the role of the wife within marriage and about society’s profound discomfort around a woman who not only takes what she wants from life, but refuses to apologise for it.
The fact that Sandra prioritises her career over her share of the childcare, cannibalises her own life and those of others for her writing (a theme that links back to Triet’s previous film, Sibyl) and unashamedly admits to having bisexual relationships during her marriage doesn’t make her guilty of murder. But neither does it conform to the role of victimhood that the accused woman is expected to play. Triet further supports this perception by frequently placing the camera slightly below Sandra – subliminally suggesting that she is a powerful, dominating, even threatening presence – rather than above her, looking down.
Did she do it? It’s worth mentioning that when Hüller asked the director this question, Triet refused to say, claiming that she herself didn’t know the answer. Ultimately, one of the key pleasures of the picture is its uncertainty – the niggling doubts that remain, and the sense that a crucial piece of the puzzle is tantalisingly out of reach.
This article was amended on 22 November 2023 because an earlier version referred to Sandra and Daniel’ s life together, when it was Sandra and Samuel’s life together which was meant.


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