‘Anatomy of a Fall’ Review: Justine Triet Weaves a Twisted Drama
Accused of killing her husband and put on trial for his death, a woman must face public scrutiny while defending and explaining herself to a world audience. Justine Triet‘s Anatomy of a Fall is a gripping and enigmatic story about a woman named Sandra (Sandra Hüller) and what happens when her husband is found dead at the base of their chalet. Part true crime legal thriller and part family drama, Triet’s Palme d’Or winner is a thrilling story about perception, truth, and ambition.
‘Anatomy of a Fall’ Is About More Than Just a Trial
Sandra is a well-known writer who often mixes details from her own personal life into her fictional stories. As a result, her work often blends the line between reality and fiction. Her books are famously based on her relationship with different family members in her life and has earned her notoriety as a result. When we meet her, she’s married to Samuel (Samuel Theis), an aspiring writer and teacher. They’ve recently moved from their home in London to a rural chalet in France, close to Daniel’s hometown. Sandra, originally German, becomes isolated in the little chalet where she has no one but her husband and her son Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner).
Unfortunately, after a series of unfortunate events, Sandra and Samuel’s marriage is on the rocks. Sandra’s continued success is a source of jealousy for Samuel, who has spent years trying to write his book but feels pinned down by her ambition. This all comes to a head when Samuel accuses Sandra of stealing his idea and says that she pushes all the childrearing responsibilities onto him. Indeed, the film never shies away from Sandra’s ego and hubris, and it’s clear that Samuel feels inadequate to his wife (a fact that Sandra herself repeats while on trial). Their relationship starts to crack after their son becomes visually impaired as a result of an accident due to neglect, then their sexual relationship fizzles and Sandra is caught cheating on Samuel. With money problems and mental health issues looming on top of all that, by the time Samuel dies, it’s unclear if he’s killed himself or if Sandra pushed him out of the top floor of their home.
‘Anatomy of a Fall’ Digs Deeper Into Character Than the Crime
Written by Triet and Arthur Harari, the film plays with a sort of unreliable narrator, giving us information about Samuel through either Sandra or the prosecutor or sometimes Daniel. The lines between what is real and what is fabricated or assumed becomes blurred just like Sandra’s books. She becomes more frustrated as the trial goes on and we dig deeper into her personal life. Hüller is stunning as Sandra, portraying the complicated woman with all the dimensions necessary for the character. She’s calm and collected on the surface, reasonable and affable, but it’s not hard to see the rage and injustice that roils beneath the surface. Anatomy of a Fall is not about whether or not Sandra killed Samuel, but more about the unraveling of a marriage and a family that we watch in slow motion.
Anatomy of a Fall is a relatively straightforward story. It isn’t a mind-bender with twists and turns that will make you gasp. It’s not a thriller in that way. By the end, it’s less important how Samuel died and more important that you now have a fuller picture of the marriage between them. The film is obsessed with its characters more than the details of the crime. That’s where Triet succeeds. There are no long, detailed analyses of blood splatter or commentary from forensic experts weighing in as everything shown is meant to enhance Sandra to us as viewers and also complicate her relationship with her son.
The way Sandra is questioned in court, with the prosecutor insinuating things about her sexuality, her arrogance, and putting words in her mouth should be familiar to anyone who has dabbled in true crime. It’s a tactic criminal prosecutors often use in order to catch people in a lie, but because we see Sandra at home and we feel that we know her, it’s hard not to root for her even if we don’t truly know what the truth is. Triet subtly shows how these types of public trials break a family down and expose the ugliest parts of a person. While Samuel and Sandra’s marriage had become ugly, putting that dirty laundry out to the public adds to the scandal around her.
Sandra’s Story Is Complicated, But the Film Is Simple
The appeal of Anatomy of a Fall is in how it tells a succinct story, one that keeps you guessing and questioning everyone, without sacrificing the artistic or filmic lens. There is a universal appeal to the film, one that’s built on the backbone of a robust story and then bolstered by strong performances and a clear directorial vision. So many films from the festival were focused more on the art of filmmaking or creating a film that felt more like a piece of art without narrative than understanding the importance of storytelling.
Triet’s storytelling is clever, feeding us snippets of information gradually so that we can piece it together ourselves. She lays out all the information for us before revealing the pivotal pieces of the puzzle during the trial. As the plot progresses, we slowly unfold the layers of Sandra and it makes for a gratifying mystery that’s worthy of praise. Hüller gives a tour-de-force performance as the protagonist and the character we spent the most time with, but the young Machado-Graner’s quiet performance as the shy Daniel who loves his dog and playing the piano is also worthy of applause.
And, despite the little time he spends on the screen, flashbacks with Theis as Samuel reveal a strong performance that gives us the portrait of Sandra and Samuel’s life. There’s truth to what Sandra says, truth to her voicing Samuel’s weaknesses and his jealousy, but there’s also a side of Sandra that we haven’t seen before. Triet wisely lays the proper groundwork before fully digging into the truest side of the story.
Coming in at 150 minutes, you’d be wrong in thinking that the film needs a shorter run time. Triet is patient with her direction and it pays off. We’re left wondering, at the edges of our seats as the trial progresses. The runtime makes it possible for us to not only see the sterile and hostile environment of the courtroom but the frazzled and human life that exists outside of it in tandem. Thoughtful and meaty, Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall offers a microscopic look not at the fall of a man, but the falling apart of relationships and what is left in the aftermath.
Anatomy of a Fall had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.