The opening scenes of Justine Triet’s Anatomy of a Fall are disconcerting and quietly upsetting, a glimpse into a dysfunctional domestic setting that immediately gives audiences a taste of the discomfort to come as the film’s two and a half hours unfolds. Author, wife and mother Sandra (the great Sandra Hüller) is trying to carry on an interview with a graduate student of hers, already awkward in its own right, but her husband, Samuel (Samuel Theis) is determined to make that impossible. He’s blasting rock music from the upstairs of their multi-level French chalet, the home in Samuel’s childhood town where they’ve returned with their son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner). The annoyance on Sandra’s face is evident, though she tries to carry on as best she can, making excuses for her husband’s rudeness. The whole scene is unsettling, from the loud music that makes the dialogue difficult to hear to the obvious disdain Sandra has for this man we haven’t even met yet.
Interview successfully derailed, the music stops, Sandra goes upstairs to rest and Daniel, who lives with a vision impairment, takes their dog, Snoop, for a walk in the snowy countryside around the house. When he returns, Snoop alerts him to something on the ground near the home’s shed; it’s his father, bloody and unmoving in the snow. And with that, we are in the midst of the film’s titular journey: what exactly happened here, and how does it get explained to the authorities, to the media and to Daniel?
Triet’s Palme d’Or winner (the highest honor at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival) unfolds as a study in small matters carrying quite significant ramifications, from the words we choose to how decisions in our every day lives look suspect when under a microscope. Thinking it the obvious (and right) thing to do, Sandra calls the authorities for help with Samuel’s accident, but this opens a can of worms she never expected, as they soon start asking questions about the day, how everyone in the home was spending their time before Samuel was discovered, and ever-more intrusive lines of interrogation that have Sandra wondering if she should be concerned.
And indeed she should, as the authorities determine that Samuel likely didn’t fall and she is the prime suspect in his fatal accident. Their family friend, Vincent (Swann Arlaud), is a lawyer who agrees to represent Sandra in what he knows will be an uphill battle; seemingly everything is stacked against Sandra, from public perception to her status as an outsider. Originally from Germany, she and Frenchman Samuel connected through the English language, a native tongue for neither of them. Before long, every aspect of Sandra’s life is under scrutiny in a trial that will quite literally determine her fate. In a trial that’s at times frustratingly pedantic, bafflingly misguided and simultaneously painfully realistic, the film becomes a gripping procedural that exploits all our worst preconceived notions about those in the defendant’s seat and challenges us to imagine this complicated situation from every angle.
Co-written by Triet and Arthur Harari, Anatomy of a Fall is not an action film, nor is there any violence to speak of on screen. And yet, it’s one of the most tense and complex viewing experiences of the year, as it weaves through every stage of Sandra’s and Daniel’s experience after Samuel’s death. While Hüller is a revelation as a woman pushed to the edge (forgive the pun) trying to defend herself and salvage her relationship with her son, Graner is one of the most unexpectedly impressive elements of the film. As a child caught up in the fast-moving circumstances of the legal system, he’s juggling his grief about his father with confusion about his mother’s future, and it’s heartbreaking to witness. The two actors deliver two of the most compelling moments in the film, seperately but equally effectively; Hüller captivates during a flashback to a fight with Samuel, while Graner makes an emotional case for his mother’s innocence during his time testifying at her trial.
This year in films has felt like the first since the pandemic that robust, impactful cinema has returned to festivals and theaters, and a film as complex and intricate as this one is a perfect example. From start to finish, Anatomy of a Fall is an engrossing human drama that often feels, as Law & Order used to put it, ripped from the headlines. The film forces audiences to confront complicated questions of relationships, from closest to us to those with society. And while it may pose more questions than it answers, this is, in the end, a gift from Triet. She respects her audience enough not spoon-feed us limp resolutions or easy solutions, and we’re the better for it.