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  • Writer's pictureMax Markowitz

Anatomy Of A Fall

An Avalanche Of Human Chaos 

Films like Justine Triet’s Palme d’Or winning courtroom drama Anatomy Of A Fall usually open with a calm before the storm. Not this one, because what if there was no calm? Of course, some storms are larger than others but at the end of the day they’re still storms and they’re called storms for a reason. Anatomy Of A Fall opens with the storm of tension that’s been building for years, equivalent to mounting flurries on an already icy road. The tension then turns to passive-aggressive sabotage which you could identify as the transition from quickening flurries and icy roads to a full-blown blizzard. 

This is the point at which all members of the party take their leave to seek shelter elsewhere. Sandra Voyter (Sandra Huller) a critically acclaimed bisexual novelist who was being interviewed by an attractive young woman (Camille Rutherford) leaves for her bedroom after the interview is brought to a screeching halt from raging loud music being blasted in the attic by her jealous husband Samuel (Samuel Theis) in an attempt to derail Sandra’s day. Sensing a fight brewing, their blind son Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner) leaves the house for a walk with the dog and the flustered interviewer drives off. Daniel returns from his walk to discover his bleeding father dead in the driveway from a fall. This is the transition from a blizzard to a deadly avalanche. 

Unfortunately for Sandra, whether the metaphors were mounting flurries, a blizzard or an avalanche won’t be very helpful information to forensics providing the autopsy which indicates that Samuel’s head injury was inflicted before he hit the ground. Did Samuel accidentally fall? Did he kill himself? Did Sandra murder him?

Triet serves up ambiguity on a platter for hungry cinephiles who like to munch on crime films. To be clear, Anatomy Of A Fall is not a thriller (Not in the traditional sense anyway) and it’s certainly not a whodunit despite some critics labeling it as such. Sandra finds herself on trial for Samuel’s death but her entire marriage is on trial too. To this day, Triet who has worked closely with Huller before on her third film Sibyl, has refused to provide Huller (Or anyone) with an answer as to whether Sandra is guilty or not. She claims not to know and insists the answer is completely beside the point. 

I find that approach to this kind of genre so shockingly refreshing, it makes me feel warm inside even though Triet’s film would like you to freeze so slowly and so painfully that by the time it ends, the only way to thaw your ice-cold pale blue skin is to perseverate over what you just watched and just maybe if you talk about it with other people, you’ll warm up faster. 

Huller truly delivers the most haunting performance of this year's Oscar nominees. Never has the beauty of ambiguity been so valued and appreciated cinematically as it is here and never has the focus of a crime drama been so close to many people’s experiences. The most loyal of cinephiles can always find something that makes a film relate to personal experiences but some plots and the circumstances surrounding them are so out there, it’s as though there is a snuggly little security blanket for these audiences so that they’re not TOO psychologically conflicted. 

Triet offers no security blanket. No answers, no predictions, not even any untruthful testimony. The context of these testimonies is often manipulated by the nasty prosecutor (Antoine Reinartz) who does not doubt in his mind that Sandra is guilty. Meanwhile, Sandra’s defense attorney Vincent (Swann Arlaud) who also happens to be an old friend of Sandra’s is continuously confronted with personal information regarding Sandra on her marriage. She leaves out a few details of course. It doesn’t matter. They expose themselves in the trial anyway. Samuel had recorded numerous fights with Sandra and these recordings can be counted on to play out in court. 

For most of the film which runs at two hours and thirty minutes, you only hear about the contexts of their marriage. There is one unbearably tense and epically written scene where the last big fight Sandra and Samuel had is shown before our very eyes just as we would see every other scene. By the time glass starts getting smashed and tempers start to skyrocket, the camera cuts back to the courtroom where the scene continues but on audio. Huller’s display of casualty mixed with the anxiety Sandra must have been feeling sent shivers down my spine, shivers I still can’t get out of me. An affair she had with a woman after the accident that impaired Daniel (Which arguably was Samuel’s fault) is also brought to light and the topic of infidelity and what truly constitutes infidelity is another perplexing and unanswered part of the story. 

I’d say the courtroom scenes cover at least half of that runtime. There are some differences between the American and the French court system. I can’t pinpoint exactly how but American audiences will notice something different than what we’re accustomed to seeing in courtroom scenes. I was fascinated by the presentation of legal arguments. 

As I mentioned, Huller delivers the most haunting performance of this year's Oscar nominees and as chilling as Anatomy Of A Fall is, it’s extremely rewatchable. I can’t stop thinking about the film and yet every time I watch it, my sole focus goes to her because she’s so captivating. Who is this woman? You never really know, not even how she makes you feel. Vincent understands her inside out and their history is never completely specified but you know it’s intense and meaningful. They both have such a unique way of looking at people and the world around them. 

“You look like a dog,” he tells her smiling as they share a smoke outside the night snowfall in front of her house after the trial has begun. “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t have the face of an animal” she replies. That they’re both outside near the wild in the night as they have this talk is very telling. Some people are more feral than others and that’s not necessarily a dangerous thing. Strange definitely but the most fascinating of people are. We’re all animals at heart anyway. At least Triet seems to think so and she’s created two people she feels she knows so intensely. It must be possible to know some people without ever having met them. I can’t fathom how she could have written them otherwise. 

The roles of children are usually just meant to carry these kinds of films along. Machado-Graner shatters any predictions about his character. He so beautifully shadows someone caught in the crossfire of hell he didn’t ask for. Having to reassess your relationship with anyone you love is always a burden and he carries that burden on his shoulders well past the point it suffocates him. I hope French cinema keeps a place open for him because he has a gorgeous vulnerability that’s often underestimated in young people like him. 

Leave it to Huller and Swann to inhabit strange and original people like Sandra and Vincent. I’d love to see them work together again. They have a psychological uncertainty to their chemistry mixed with desire and very quiet passion. They very much reminded me of Claire Danes and Damian Lewis in Homeland for some reason.

I loved Huller’s work in 2016’s Toni Erdman and 2019’s Sibyl, both of which competed at Cannes and are arguably more traditionally vulnerable roles. It’s always a treat to see actors who make you curious flourish in something new and altogether different. Swann’s raw and gutting work in By The Grace Of God left me hoping to see him on screen again for a while now and he connects with Huller, especially in the moments when it seems like they wouldn’t. Watching Huller, who was so calm and composed for most of the film, completely fall apart in tears of pain after Daniel makes it clear he wants her to leave the house until the verdict. Vincent lets her cry without having to say much and that’s true loyalty: To just let a friend fall apart and have that be ok. 

Watching Anatomy Of A Fall is like being a detective looking obsessively over an unsolved case to the point it leads to madness. You’re not just watching a film here. Something much bigger is at play and you never know quite what that is. Years may go by and the mystery surrounding the film will most likely still be as unclear. As Vincent says, guilt is not the point. What kind of person are Sandra, Daniel, Vincent, and Samuel to have just fallen into these circumstances, if it was, in fact, a fall? Just how much we all have in common with them is the real takeaway here because we all like to think that disturbed people are so far removed from who we are. We don’t even pity them, we just don’t like to see ourselves as that close to the edge of chaos. We are though. We are always living on the border of chaos and that’s what makes us human. Triet indicates what many of us often forget: Being human isn’t evil. It’s just really terrifying. 

Lord-of-TV. (n.d.). Anatomy of a Fall (2023). Retrieved February 28, 2024, from

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