A famed novelist is accused of murder after her struggling husband is found dead below their French chalet. Anatomy of a Fall, Palme d’Or winner at this year’s 76th Cannes Film Festival, is a riveting exploration of perceived truth and the painstaking search for justice. The secrets that bind couples together are laid bare in an intense analysis of character and motive. What was said and done in heated private arguments become critical clues in determining guilt or innocence. A visually-impaired child at the narrative’s center must testify and face cross-examination to possibly decide the fate of his beloved mother. Anatomy of a Fall astounds on all fronts. It easily contends for best film of the year.
Sandra Voyter (Sandra Hüller) sits in her living room having wine with a lovely young woman. Zoé (Camille Rutherford), a university student working on her thesis, is charmed to be in the presence of the renowned and widely respected author. Their conversation gets repeatedly interrupted by a booming instrumental version of 50 Cent’s P.I.M.P. Sandra’s husband, Samuel Maleski (Samuel Theis), is in the attic installing insulation. The couple and their nearly-blind 11-year-old son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), have recently moved to the mountains near Grenoble.
Sandra laughs uncomfortably as she can’t get a word in. The deafening music has made the interview impossible. Sandra won’t ask Samuel to turn it down. He’s doing this to annoy her while he labors on constant renovations. Sandra politely asks Zoé if they can reschedule for another day. She leaves with Daniel and his dog Snoopy right behind her. Zoé looks up at the second floor before driving away mystified. Daniel, wearing his dark glasses, leads Snoopy toward the trails below the house.
Accused of Murder
Daniel mills around before deciding to return home. He reaches the shed by the front door to a shocking site. Samuel is splayed on the snowy ground with a massive head wound. Daniel runs to his father’s side but cannot get a response. He screams for his mother in agony. Sandra races outside to see the commotion. She grabs Samuel to feel for any signs of life. A hysterical Sandra immediately calls for help.
Later that day, Sandra smokes solemnly after her interview with the authorities. She can’t process that Samuel has died. Her only thoughts are for Daniel, curled up in bed weeping with Snoopy. A nightmare has come true. Sandra receives a visit from a dear friend. Vincent Renzi (Swann Arlaud), a lawyer, had known Samuel and Sandra for years. He wants her to carefully reconstruct everything that happened. Sandra is stupefied to learn that she’s under investigation and will likely be charged with murder. The gendarmes don’t believe that Samuel fell from the attic.
Director/co-writer Justine Triet (Age of Panic, Sibyl) moves at a methodical pace to reflect Sandra’s shock and grief. Samuel’s death strikes her and Daniel like lightning. Its abrupt impact leaves them both reeling. The gendarmes don’t have time to placate her emotional fragility. The crime scene doesn’t make sense. Samuel couldn’t have fallen from that height with such a wound and ended up in the snow beside the shed. Also, the autopsy reveals he most likely died from being struck by a blunt object. The fall did not kill him. They demand immediate answers.
Secrets Laid Bare
Anatomy of a Fall swiftly changes tone in a masterful second act. Sandra becomes tabloid fodder. Every aspect of her stories, which she previously claimed was inspired by her private life, is dissected for incriminating details. Even worse, the French prosecutor doesn’t want her to have any unsupervised contact with Daniel. He found the body, but his recollection of the moment is evolving. They worry that Sandra may be trying to influence her son’s memories. Sandra’s aghast when a caretaker, Marge (Jehnny Beth), is assigned supervision of Daniel. She can only meet with him in her presence. Also, Sandra must only speak French. Sandra, a German with fluency issues in French, feels ripped apart, but cannot succumb to weakness or risk losing her son and freedom.
Triet’s courtroom scenes are brilliantly executed. The audience has followed Sandra’s singular perspective up to this point. She seems like an innocent woman being put through abject hell. But is that really true? Is Sandra’s sorrow a manufactured lie? Could she have killed Samuel and staged his death? This is the burning question that erupts like a volcano during the trial. The fierce avocat général (Antoine Reinartz) and stern judge (Anne Rotger) aren’t swayed by Sandra’s tears. They see deception, lies, and another side of Sandra only Samuel knew. Vincent, who also has a complex relationship with Sandra, must defend her past and marriage while acknowledging problems with Samuel did exist.
Daniel becomes a key a player for the defense and prosecution. His eyesight may be poor but other senses highly acute. Did he witness an accident, murder, or something else? Your heart aches as a precious boy sits through the gruesome details of his father’s death, mother’s darkest skeletons, and the reality of their marriage.
Triet never gives anything away. She allows the characters, evidence, and trial questioning to unfurl like a map of human connections. There’s smoking gun or ridiculous Perry Mason gotchas. Anatomy of a Fall weaves sublimely between differing possibilities. The gavel does fall, but did we learn the truth?
Anatomy of a Fall, a production of Les Films Pelléas and Les Films de Pierre, has French and English dialogue with subtitles. It was screened as part of the 61st New York Film Festival. Anatomy of a Fall will be released theatrically on October 13th from NEON.
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