Anatomy of a Fall (Anatomie d'une chute) ★★★
Availability: Showing nationwide in theaters; no streaming at this time. Neon productions generally stream on Hulu about 4 months after theatrical release, which would put it out in February. See JustWatch here for future availability.
Anatomy of a Marriage
The thunderous, pounding sounds of music drown out any attempt by an interviewer to question, and hear answers from, her subject, writer Sandra Voyter. After several annoying minutes in the theater of not being able to hear the dialogue (and contemplating walking out), the interview is aborted and the young female journalist leaves the isolated, French Alps chalet that is Sandra’s home. Soon after, a boy discovers his father’s body, lying in the snow, blood all around, below the chalet.
There’s no truth to be had when people don’t listen or can’t be heard.
Within minutes, each of these scenes is clarified. Sandra’s husband, Samuel, has fallen or been pushed from an odd-shaped, difficult-to-access window on the third floor of the chalet. Only Sandra, Sam, and their visually-impaired son, Daniel, are in the house or nearby. Suspicion, consequently, falls on Sandra. Either she’s a murderer or it’s a suicide (which Sam would never do, says Sandra). The deafening music, rather than a badly conceived soundtrack, emanates from Sam’s studio (“it doesn’t bother me,” says Sandra) and functions as a metaphor for French director Justine Triet’s modern take on the whodunit: there’s no truth to be had when people don’t listen or can’t be heard. Daniel can’t see, and Sam and Sandra are “deaf.”
Sandra (Sandra Hüller) with her lawyer (Swann Arlaud) in the isolated
French Alps that's the scene of the accident/crime.
The fall is subject to an anatomy by the faceless local police, the defense attorney, and a defense expert. The police stage and film a re-enactment with a dummy, then show the video to the jurors in the courtroom drama that ensues. Sandra’s friend and lawyer (Swann Arlaud), whose face is as expressive as hers is not, draws her a diagram of the fall, emphasizing that there are only two options that fit the crime scene with its three streaks of blood on a shed located under that window.
But that’s not the most interesting anatomy in the film.
Sandra does not easily evoke empathy.
As played by Sandra Hüller, who won awards for her title role in the 2016 German comedy “Toni Erdmann,” the character Sandra does not easily evoke empathy. She’s a tough German, a no-nonsense, often cold “emasculator,” as her husband’s therapist calls her. But she holds the cards: she’s the only one alive and so can tell her version of the events, and characterize Sam, without eye-witness contradiction.
Sam is the classic white male victim (of a strong woman, no less) that Trump has evoked and channeled.
Triet’s script (co-written with Arthur Harari) nonetheless goes to great lengths to give charismatic Sam (Samuel Theis) equal time—the drama depends on it. In one of several less-than-credible elements of the story, Sam’s therapist testifies at the trial about Sandra’s behavior in the marriage. Later, an audio recording of a day-before marital argument shows up at just the right time, giving Sam, who’s also a writer, an opportunity to explain why he hasn’t been able to produce anything (maybe if he turned down the music). He’s the classic white male victim (of a strong woman, no less) that Trump has evoked and channeled.
Sam (Samuel Theis) and Sandra
(Sandra Hüller) in happier days -
from a photo they display
in their chalet.
For police procedural fans, this is catnip, though the “procedural” part takes place mostly in the courtroom, with detectives testifying not only to the fall, but also to Sandra’s supposed rage (also not credible). More interesting are the aspects of the film that give it the quality of “Scenes from a Marriage” (by Ingmar Bergman in 1973, most recently revived as a TV miniseries). Triet explores the relationship between a successful, controlling, Germanic writer, and an emotional, failing French writer and teacher.
Their arguments replicate those any couple has.
They speak English with each other, their language differences another metaphor for their relationship, for the lack of understanding and commonality. She views him as having isolated her in his hometown, where the villagers find her French inadequate and treat her as an outsider, and he views her as having imposed a language on the family that is neither of their mother tongues. Their arguments replicate those any couple has: who contributes more time to the family? who shops for groceries? who takes care of the child? who made the choices? Add a family accident that damaged the son, admissions of sexual infidelity, maybe the theft of a book idea, and one has a multi-faceted family drama.
Sandra's stoic demeanor in the courtroom does not endear her to the jurors - part of director Triet's effort to keep one's sympathies oscillating between her guilt and innocence.
Her demeanor and the courtroom setting are a replica of last year's French Saint Omer.
The plot is taut, with opinion oscillating between Sandra’s guilt and innocence. It’s so even-handed that the producers advertise it (you’ll see this in the opening producer credits) as didshedoit.com, and visitors to the website are encouraged to vote yes or no before purchasing tickets.
The acerbic and confrontational prosecutor: Antoine Reinartz
as Avocat général.
To make the truth that difficult to ascertain, Triet employs a good deal of artifice. The prosecutor is so acerbic and confrontational and so full of quips that one can’t imagine him in a real courtroom. And the 11-year-old son (Milo Machado Graner) is allowed to be present for all the testimony, all the harshness of his parents’ argument, even the details of his father’s death. The family dog has a major role in the last twenty minutes, shaping Daniel’s memory of his father and, in the final scene, offering still another perspective on Sandra and her husband.
Palm Dog winner Messi plays Snoop, the family dog,
who lies down with Sandra - in place of her husband?
The Cannes Palme d’Or winners of the past 5 years have been powerful dramas, sometimes edgy, often with strong political overtones. The Japanese “Shoplifters” and Korean “Parasite” are two of the best films we’ve seen over this timespan. “Titane” was notable for its aggressive eroticism. And last year’s winner, “Triangle of Sadness,” was, like “Parasite,” a strong critique of the moneyed class.
“Anatomy,” this year’s Palme d’Or winner, seems very different from its predecessors, in part because of its clinical approach to the dilemma it raises, and because of its refusal to take a stand, although some viewers will find a way to judgment. Like the viewer, Daniel is faced with choosing sides. When he asks what to do when one simply can’t know which side to believe, he is told “just decide.” In a post-truth era, “Anatomy of a Fall” reflects the difficulty of finding truth and, eschewing politics as many would prefer to do in these times, takes the search for it into the home, using the marital relationship as its palette. Beyond some play with contemporary existential questions, it’s an ordinary tale, well-told and well-acted, but lacking a heartbeat.
Director: Justine Triet
Starring: Sandra Hüller, Swann Arlaud, Milo Machado Graner, Samuel Theis, Antoine Reinartz
Languages: English, French (subtitled), German
Runtime: 151 minutes
Other Awards: 6 wins (including the Palme d’Or) and 8 other nominations