Synopsis: A woman is suspected of her husband’s murder, and their blind son faces a moral dilemma as the sole witness.
Stars: Sandra Hüller, Samuel Theis, Swann Arlaud, Jehnny Beth, Milo Machado Graner, Saadia Bentaïeb, Antoine Reinartz, Camille Rutherford
Director: Justine Triet
Running Length: 152 minutes
TMMM Score: (9/10)
Review: I began my time at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival with a whopper of an early morning doubleheader that covered a lot of bases and checked several boxes. Both were films that finished in the top two spots at the Cannes Film Festival a few months earlier, and both starred Sandra Hüller in roles that are bound to be galvanizing to audiences and catnip to critics. The first was Justine Triet’s Anatomy of Fall, winner of the Palme d’Or (the highest honor) at Cannes, and the second was The Zone of Interest from Jonathan Glazer, winner of the Grand Prix (second place). We’ll talk about The Zone of Interest more in December, but with Anatomy of a Fall getting a limited release now, it’s time to look at this family drama courtroom thriller, which will send you reeling.
Sandra (Hüller, Sleep) is being interviewed by Zoé (Camille Rutherford), a student at the home she shares with her husband and young son in the French Alps. The playful banter is going well until Sandra’s husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) starts to play his music so loud the two women can’t hear one another. (Note to those easily earworm-ed: the song is an instrumental cover of 50 Cent’s P.I.M.P. by German funk group Bacao Rhythm & Steel Band, and it will live in your head for WEEKS) The more they try to converse, the louder Samuel turns up the music. The passive-aggressive action ends the interview early, but Sandra suggests she get together with Zoé again to finish.
That raincheck never happens because later that afternoon, Samuel is discovered on the ground outside, dead from a fall from his upstairs window. Discovered by his visually impaired son Daniel (Milo Machado Graner) and the family dog, they need to wake up Sandra, who has been asleep inside this whole time. The authorities come, Vincent (Swann Arlaud), a family friend with legal experience arrives, and what looks like a tragic accident is at first filed away as such. And yet, eventually, the French legal system gets involved and puts Sandra, a German, on trial for the murder of her husband. Did she push him out of the window after a fight? Did he jump? Did he fall?
With language as a barrier (the court requires Sandra to testify in French, though German and English are her preferred methods of communication) and a misogynistic system seizing every crack in her marriage as evidence of her guilt, how can Sandra prove innocence when her defense continues to disintegrate? Doubt even enters the mind of her son, who is already struggling to make sense of confrontations between his parents that point toward violence. How much can the public ever know about a private relationship when viewed from the outside in?
Triet poses enticing questions throughout Anatomy of a Fall, and the discussions of them by the characters are so rich that it doesn’t matter if she fully answers them or not by the end. That’s part of the deep resonance of the world she’s created: the human realities of the tragedy that happens initially to the family and the possibly more devastating fallout after the fact. It’s as if Triet is asking, through the lens of a polarizing courtroom thriller, the cost of over-examining personal flaws and using those as evidence of guilt in a more significant crime.
Running 2 ½ hours, you’d never know it because of the breathless pacing in Anatomy of a Fall and because Triet kept the question of guilt up in the air for so long. How the verdict falls is for you to experience, but it’s almost beside the point by the time we get there. Triet and Hüller have given you enough evidence through performance and narrative structure by that time for you to make up your mind about what you believe. Even an explanation as a summary near the very end doesn’t quite seem like it closes the book on the subject.
For a movie to leave you with more questions than you started with, and gladly, is rare, and for an audience to leave satisfied with that outcome is even more unique. Yet Anatomy of a Fall does just that, and it’s how it played to such success on the festival circuit and why it emerged as one of the best films of 2023.