With what is only her fourth feature film, French filmmaker Justine Triet has made a strong call for award recognition. After her 2019 Cannes Main Competition entry Sibyl—a delightful rabbit hole of a movie which found Viriginie Efira in a distressingly attractive love triangle with Adèle Exarchopoulos and Gaspard Ulliel—comes Anatomy of a Fall. The title may be more literal than good taste would allow, since the film is about the aftermath of a deadly fall, that of writer and stay-at-home dad Samuel (Samuel Theis), from the top floor of a chalet in the French Alps. The event itself is not shown and there are no witnesses. However, the whole two hours and a half of Anatomy of a Fall dissects the possibilities that could have led to Samuel’s death. Instrumental in this regard are traumatological reports, projections and sketches, and the testimonies of his son and his wife, successful German author Sandra (an impeccable Sandra Hüller), who soon becomes the main suspect for the murder of her husband.
But the script, which Triet co-wrote with director, actor, and partner Arthur Harari, makes use of clever twists and turns in order to advance the plot in a nonconventional way. A lot of the dramaturgic power in this film is owed to the consistent withholding—and therefore, suspense—of crucial details, missing pieces, and, obviously, the role of blame. Anatomy of a Fall does start off as a procedural thriller, the visuals and concise editing techniques building up the possibility of a vile act alongside that of a intended suicide. There two sides of the case unspool in the film’s second and third act, when Sandra faces the court as a suspect, and the courtroom drama game is on.
Taking into account the difference of genre between Sibyl and the new film, one can easily relate the two by way of their protagonists: both women are successful writers, use real life as a source for their literature—sometimes without consent—and get punished for doing so. “Do you think one should only write from experience?” is an otherwise innocent question which comes back to haunt Sandra after she’s taken the stand. The protagonist is very certain in her right to use reality and relationships as source material for her work, and she speaks in the voice of many, many (male) authors that have come before her. But how many of them had to defend a secondary character in one of their early books for plotting to kill her husband? Well, Sandra does.
It may sound more like a shtick than an intellectual provocation, but the film offers food for thought on the topic of creative ownership and responsibility, and how fluid these categories can be when applied to a woman. Anatomy of a Fall uses the judicial system to expose inherently misogynistic prejudices under which such heavy—legal—decisions are being made every day, but also relies on a very complex reading of the marriage economy: who does what, when, and for what gain. The whole film looks stellar, thanks to Triet’s regular cinematographer Simon Beaufils’s restrained camerawork, but there is one scene in particular that triumphs over the rest, and that is a flammable conversation at the dinner table. Scripting and filming an engrossing, believable fight, is an art of its own, and Triet has, without a doubt, mastered it: the scene feels like a long take, even if it’s not, brimming with intensity and emotional exchanges. It’s more than simply watching a rewarding tennis match of heavy words and insults; the feeling that you as a viewer are constantly shifting your allegiance between the characters, this is how strong their own convictions against one another are at that moment.
A surprising discovery in this year’s Cannes Competition, Anatomy of a Fall defies most expectations one might have towards a courtroom drama of such proportions, i.e. marital, but its depth of emotional competency is something to be cherished. Not to mention that the family’s dog Snoop (Messi) already won this year’s Palme Dog for his enduring canine performance, and for being a crucial (unwarranted) part in the process of investigation. Justine Triet is not afraid to risk it and invite more darkness and even darker moral ambiguity in her films, which may be the signs of further cinematographic maturity for an already acknowledged French director.
This review is from the 2023 Cannes Film Festival where Anatomy of a Fall premiered in Competition. NEON will release the film in the U.S.