Justine Triet's brilliantly slippery, serpentine film, about a writer accused of murder, hinges on a remarkably unshowy lead turn
Anatomy of a Fall is not the only French-language courtroom drama to earn positive festival reviews in the past year (Saint Omer), let alone at this Cannes (The Goldman Case), but given its universal-yet-intimate scope and unshowy performance from lead actress Sandra Hüller, it may well be the one to scoop a top prize. This airy and beguiling drama is powered by both its remarkable lead actress and its smart and serpentine script, which explores the ways in which dialogue warps reality – cracking open the rigid confines of the legal trial to expose the fragility of our allegiances and our susceptibility to manipulation.
Hairpin roads lurch us queasily up to and away from the remote Alpine home of Sandra (Sandra Hüller) and Samuel (Samuel Theis), a couple who made the mistake of moving to the middle of nowhere with no one to annoy but each other. Sandra is a successful writer who is put off by her husband’s shameless self-pity; Samuel is a depressed teacher who blames his wife for kneecapping his own writerly success. Their son Daniel (Milo Machado Graneral), almost completely blind after an accident that occurred in his father’s company, is small, solemn, and spends his days playing with his dog Snoop.
But after a slightly surreal opening in which we’re blasted with a looped, steel drum instrumental cover of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P,” Samuel’s dead body is discovered in the snow. Did he jump, or did Sandra push him? Over two-and-a-half hours, director Justine Triet is less concerned with the facts of the case and more so about ugly pain than lies within a fractured relationship, the cruelty of exposing these splinters to a braying, uniformed court, and the ways in which we manipulate words to forge new truths.
Triet’s film pulls off an incredible feat – it is so simple on the surface, sparkling with clarity like a slope of fresh snow, but it belies a thousand moving parts that you can barely keep tabs on. First there’s the real-life childhood photos of Hüller and Theis that reappear throughout, and the fact that the actors’ and characters’ names are the same; then there’s the mischievous title that tips its hat to Otto Preminger’s 1959 classic. In a film that questions both the validity and purpose of reality and truth-telling within a setting that is so artfully, artificially constructed – both the courtroom and a film itself – how carefully and powerfully can we use words to protest innocence or evoke real sentiment when we are writers, or speaking a different language, or trying to give contours to an emotional cloud?
It’s a rare film in this genre where you sincerely don’t know or care about who is guilty or who isn’t; it slaloms between heartbreak and comedy with a sense of ease and surprise that never feels disorientating. Though it may lack the impish spirit of Justine Triet’s past works, such as her similarly court-set rom com In Bed with Victoria, it feels like it is operating in the real world, where even the saddest of situations aren’t these dour, po-faced affairs of self-serious pretension that the legal thriller or courtroom drama can often lean into.
Anatomy of a Fall will be catnip to those deeply invested in the intricacies of legal trials, the off-kilter humour of intellectual French comedy, and the magnetic command of Sandra Hüller (surely a shoo-in for this year’s Cannes Best Actress) – but even if you do not care about any of these things, the chances are you’ll be surprised at how much this cold fish of a procedural lingers with you for days, melting away from frost into warmth.
Anatomy of a Fall was screened as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2023. A UK release date is yet to be announced.Where to watch