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Anatomy of a Fall

Released 2023. Director: Justine Triet

TAKE A SCALPEL TO A DOMESTIC UNION AND YOU'RE LIKELY to find fragments of discontent, frustration and pent-up feelings in various degrees. We’re only humans after all, and we have emotions. Friction and disagreements are normal, and nobody is in any position to pass judgements on how others handle their own affairs. So imagine if you have to surrender your privacy and intimate history in order to clear your name.  

Outside an isolated chalet in the French Alps, Samuel is found dead with a head wound. Did he jump or fall from the attic window? Or was he pushed over the balcony? His wife Sandra, the only other person present, will go through gruelling questioning as the prime suspect when the cause of death is ruled inconclusive. Is she innocent or guilty, is she lying or telling the truth? For the audience, it’s not easy to tell one way or the other.

Anatomy of a Fall is an analysis of a fracturing marriage in the guise of a courtroom drama. How did Samuel end up dead outside in the snow? The circumstances are not clear-cut. For the court to determine the most likely scenario, details of their marriage will be thoroughly scrutinised. That’s when the fine points about the couple which are nobody else’s business get aired in public.

Samuel and Sandra are both writers. He’s French, she’s German and they speak mostly in English. The choice of language not only becomes vital in Sandra’s self-defence but also implies you can’t get to the heart of the matter when you’re not hearing each other.

Their 11-year-old son Daniel is visually impaired after an accident when he was younger. Samuel’s guilt over the years has affected his work and sense of self-worth. He also resents Sandra for using his idea in her book and hasn’t forgiven her for cheating on him. Sandra blames their situation on Samuel’s insistence to relocate the family from their comfortable life in London where she was happy. She also disgrees vehemently with how Samuel sees their marriage.

Sometimes, the compromises and sacrifices made in a relationship turn into resentments that confront you in a blind corner. Samuel and Sandra are not exempted and in their case, antagonism, jealousy, wounded ego, stress, debt, a litany of grievances spill forth once the floodgates are opened. The words exchanged in a heated confrontation are now being forensically picked apart to determine if a man killed himself or if his wife had a hand in what happened.

The arguments are strong on both the prosecution and defence sides and so, as the movie says, we must “decide” on one outcome, in the absence of absolute proof or in the presence of equally compelling evidence. There’s no sitting on the fence here.

Anatomy of a Fall is an example of meticulous and precise writing, twisty and riveting as the story unfolds. A domestic mystery turns courtroom thriller expertly paced and edited to reveal layers of detail and nuance. The build-up is sustained and persuasive, almost nail-biting and gripping. It’s even more remarkable when you consider that all this is achieved by basically sessions of Q and A in a courtroom. Director and co-writer Justine Triet never lets melodrama intrude but focuses firmly on her characters, examining their strengths and flaws.

In the end it comes down to the testimony of a child. Daniel, having lost his father and facing the prospects of losing his mother as well, will sway the court towards one direction. The boy who relies more on hearing and tactile guidance has been shown to be unreliable and contradictory in his recall. Is it reasonable to rest the verdict on his words?

Triet never told actress Sandra Hüller if her character was innocent or guilty. You can see from Hüller’s performance a woman drawing from her own strength for support, a widow with no opportunity to grief, or maybe her blood is cold enough to maintain a shatterproof façade. She compels your empathy whether you want to see her set free or go to prison. You want to understand her and place your opinion neatly in a box labelled either guilty or innocent. Hüller gives nothing away and makes it difficult to put such a label on Sandra. 

The court hands down its verdict on Sandra’s fate. I would make a terrible juror because I find it impossible to convict or acquit based on the testimonies. What I can state beyond doubt is this is an intelligent and engrossing movie that trusts its audience to work through the grey areas, not only on the guilt or innocence of the accused, but to contemplate on the intricate mechanics of living as a strained couple no longer in agreement.


Click image above to view trailer. New window will open.

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