JustineTriet’s Anatomy Of A Fall explores how information can reveal character and vice versa during a murder trial. Sandra Huller plays a German novelist accused of murdering her husband Samuel Theis (Samuel Theis) in their French cabin. The relationship between the two is scrutinized in court a year later. This includes their blind adolescent son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), the only witness to his father’s death; Daniel also found Samuel’s body after he seemingly fell from a high window, leaving odd blood-spatter patterns nearby and dying on impact.
However, before any of the plot unfolds, Triet and co-writer Arthur Harari lure us in with mementos and pieces of music, including perhaps the most amusing and absurd use of a 50 Cent song in recent memory; an instrumental version of his upbeat, energetic 2003 single “P.I.M.P” is an important plot point! The film is filled with riveting courtroom scenes and performances. Daniel is also left with a dilemma as to what to believe. Vincent (Swann Arlaud), her attorney, is a close friend of both Sandra and Daniel. He has no choice but to present Samuel’s death to the jury as a suicide because an accident from his attic workroom would be difficult to prove. She has no choice but to accept this story, which leaves her with a bitter taste, but soon makes her see Samuel from a different perspective. Samuel is only ever portrayed in a reconstruction. He’s not shown on screen until he’s dead, and we are only allowed to see Triet’s visualisation of the covert recordings of his arguments with Sandra. The marriage has been in trouble for a while, and more than Daniel or the audience realized, Sandra is increasingly attacked by Reinartz, who slithers through his accusatory monologues, fighting a just battle that makes him look utterly despicable. Huller’s Sandra is also able to maintain a careful balance between her character’s public persona and private self, even though she sometimes slips and cracks when under pressure. This is a vulnerable performance that does not just linger in grief over a spouse’s passing and anxiety about being accused of murdering him, but that continues to do so, leaving her at her wit’s end. In a private moment the character says “I’m tired of crying.” It’s really ridiculous, it’s so exhausting,” you fully believe that the movie’s premise — to which we’ve just been introduced — has been chipping away at her for a year.
However, the film’s secret weapon is arguably Machado Graner, a child performer who takes on a monumentally mature task, embodying not only the uncontrollable agony of loss but the character’s confusion and suspicion surrounding what’s left of his family. No one wants to think that their mother was a killer, or even that their parents were not a perfect couple. Daniel, however, is desperate for some sort of solid ground under his feet and will embrace any possibility – even the most monstrous – if that means he can have some certainty again. Machado Graner grasps all possible outcomes, even though they seem to confuse Daniel. The young actor is forced to search for answers, and this without using his character’s eyesight. This departure from the traditional cinematic format of the film not only gives the character a more realistic experience, but also disorients viewers. It also keeps Machado Graner in the frame as much as possible, tethering us to his fragility.
However, while the performances and dialogue help make explicit the various characters’ conundrums and internal mindsets, many of the design details, and the implications of certain questions, tend to shift the subtext of the trial itself, which becomes its own fluid character of sorts. The longer it goes on, the more all-encompassing the prosecution gets, targeting not only Sandra and Samuel’s marriage but their respective literary careers, their relationship with their son, and even Sandra’s femininity and sexuality.Anatomy of a Fall puts Sandra’s femininity on trial.
At the outset, the trial follows the physical evidence of Samuel’s death, but when things don’t add up conclusively either way, it takes on a more pointed narrative. Sandra’s bisexuality is revealed in the film. Her family was aware of this fact, but the movie uses it to poison public opinion when she is accused of infidelity. She is interviewed earlier in the day, by a female reporter. Their interactions, which are flirtatious but not overtly so, become evidence of implied impropriety, as well as potential arguments, between the couple. (Samuel seems to sabotage this interview as well by playing “P.I.M.P.” at an unreasonable volume. This is one of the more direct ways Sandra’s femininity has been questioned, and it suggests a kind of duplicity. However, there are also some other, more subtle, methods that are just as sinister. Her success is one of the things that are used against her. She flourished when Samuel was in a professional limbo. The subplot is certainly more nuanced as it progresses, and reveals Samuel to be an interesting, troubled character. However, at times, this can feel like the center of the trial, making us read the prosecutor’s brutality as a form of compensation. No statement he makes directly hints at this, but editor Laurent Senechal’s rhythmic, whip-smart assembly of the courtroom scenes leaves room for the possibility, given where and how his reaction shots seem to manifest.
Despite a completely self-assured performance from Reinartz, the cinematic language on display pokes the tiniest of holes in what seems like a known quantity — a perspective and motivation that feels entirely certain. The prosecutor’s intentions are clear, as is the case with all the other characters, but there are subtle hints of doubt that creep in around the edges. The way Sandra is presented (that is, how she is designed and portrayed) is likely to create similar doubts. However, these doubts are more likely to come from the audience than any particular character. The film does not focus on the individual jurors, but it is hard to ignore the possibility that some might look down upon Sandra because of her queerness or subconsciously view her as more violent due to her masculine looks. Ultimately, every bit of evidence comes down to this and similar biases, and even as an audience, it’s hard not to reckon with some of the notions the film puts forth, whether or not it plants seeds of doubt in the viewers’ minds.
Justine Triet’s use of sound is sensational.
Anatomy of a Fall
doesn’t depend on Sandra’s guilt or innocence to be effective. The narrative’s perspective appears to favor one version of events and facts early on. However, the lingering questions are about the impact of different interpretations. In a sense, the film is an anthropological guessing-game as well as a winding dramatic story, with clues that come in the form physical details and pieces of information, which seem to ask: “How will this make Sandra appear to the jury?” What about her son? “
Another tongue-in cheek way to achieve this is by using music. More specifically, it uses frequent instrumental repetitions of 50 Cent’s song “P.I.M.P.” It’s not a big deal at first, but it becomes a nuisance or even an antagonist, trying to disrupt or sabotage. It may seem absurd to begin with, but when you meet the film on its own terms, it opens up an entire world of interpretations. There is, as the prosecutor notes, the song’s sexually provocative nature, which immediately reframes her interview in a specific context that may not have previously existed, and there are numerous such possible readings that could shed new light on the case while being equally ridiculous.
Do the song’s absent lyrics
, like “I don’t know what you heard about me” or “But a bitch can’t get a dollar out of me,” inadvertently inform the movie’s themes of innuendo and speculation, or its suspicions surrounding Samuel’s life insurance? Does the song’s Caribbean steel drums, which contrast sharply with Sandra and Samuels freezing surroundings, suggest a desire to escape? Is the album’s title,
Get rich or die trying’
an irony, given Samuel’s declining career, or is it a cryptic message on his part? This seems like a lot of attention being paid to a single amusing detail. But it is a detail that appears repeatedly in a movie whose plot revolves around characters who are always looking for ways to get closer and closer the truth, be it legal or spiritual. The meaning behind the song is perhaps as unknowable, as the question whether we should be examining it in the first instance. It is only by accepting this contradiction that one can make sense of the contradictory evidence. Otherwise, it could drive a person mad, as nearly did Daniel, the young character who was desperate to find a pattern of familiarity and meaning. Daniel’s innermost feelings are reflected in the external arrhythmia he cannot form or express to others. The
Anatomy Of A Fall
is gripping because he hasn’t learned how to process information like adults. He may come to conclusions which will damage his relationship. She knows this too, and as she glances over to him constantly during the trial, the question of what will become of mother and son becomes just as pressing and emotionally intriguing as who killed the father.
Anatomy of a Fall was reviewed out of Cannes, where it won the Palme d’Or. It opens in cinemas on October 13.