New York Film Festival 2023 Review: ‘Anatomy of a Fall’

Justine Triet's Palme D'Or winner presents its central suspicious-death trial with intense formal rigor and skill.

by James Y. Lee
Anatomy of a Fall

Film as a medium has always worked in nebulous service of the truth. Subjectivity, in particular, is one of its most prominent tools; the limitations of the frame allow for countless possibilities to express what exists within and outside the bounds of a character’s knowledge. Any filmmaker able to judiciously wield those details to craft a complex portrait of the truth is one with a strong command of their craft; a filmmaker who is also able to wield that immense talent within the context of a subgenre as narratively demanding and challenging as the courtroom drama is one who has already reached a certain threshold of greatness. That greatness seems to have divinely reached out to Justine Triet, whose latest work, Anatomy of a Fall, has won her the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival (itself among the prestigious barometers of cinematic brilliance), and perhaps deservedly so, even with a Competition section as rich as the list of films that premiered that same year. Convincingly presenting the ambiguous details of a suspicious-death trial is already no easy feat, yet through its usage of Sandra Hüller’s maverick lead performance, as well as the intense momentum of how it dissects the crumbling marriage at its center, Anatomy goes the extra mile, pulling out nearly all the stops in Triet’s cinematic toolbox to powerful, frequently astonishing effect.

Triet opens Anatomy of a Fall directly on its eponymous incident, one depicted through an opening sequence whose simultaneous absurdity and tension makes for an incredible introduction to the immediate details of the case. Each piece comes together seamlessly and with great attention to pacing; renowned author Sandra Voyter (Hüller) is being interviewed in her home by a graduate student about her creative process, until her husband, Samuel Maleski (Samuel Theis), begins playing the instrumental to 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.” on loop at a hilariously loud volume from the attic, seemingly while working on renovations for the attic. The music’s loud enough to reverberate throughout the entire building and interfere with the interview; Sandra ultimately sends her interviewer away and heads upstairs, while her son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner, a stunning discovery in this cast), takes their dog Snoop out for a walk, and gets away from the noise. By the time he comes back, however, he makes a shocking discovery; Samuel has died from falling a great height onto the ground, his blood staining the snow around him, all while the “P.I.M.P.” instrumental continues ringing out of the house to powerfully dissonant effect. Soon enough, the suspicious, ambiguous circumstances surrounding his death prompt an investigation into witness testimony at the scene, with lawyer Vincent Renzi (Swann Arlaud) there to support Sandra through the case.

Yet, as a result of countless inconsistencies and suspicions, the investigation does not end in the family’s favor. One year afterward, Sandra has been indicted under suspicion of murdering Samuel, and a trial promptly ensues — one that serves as a thorough dissection of what is gradually revealed to be Sandra and Samuel’s fundamentally dysfunctional marriage. What initially amounts to an investigation of the details of Samuel’s death gradually shifts into a deep dive into the workings of what exactly it is that drove Sandra and Samuel to a point of such gnashing marital animosity, and a divide forms between the possible cause of death; homicide at Sandra’s hands, or suicide by Samuel’s own volition. As the details unfurl for the public to see, with defense and prosecutor bringing their own respective cases to the table, and with Daniel finding himself standing in the eye of the proverbial storm, Anatomy of a Fall becomes less about the titular fall itself, so much as it centers its trial around the rising chaos that preceded it, and the harrowing fallout that reared its ugly head in the year that followed.

One of the great narrative traditions of the courtroom drama is the imbuing of its central case with a sense of theatricality; the idea that the story could be framed just as well if it were to be shown on stage and in front of a live audience. (It goes without saying, of course, that stage-to-screen adaptations frequently abound of this kind, among the most popular perhaps being the adaptation of Aaron Sorkin’s A Few Good Men and the adaptation of Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men.) More often than not, such a premise for a movie asks a clear sense of differentiation in medium from the filmmakers venturing into creating such stories; differentiation that Triet is able to provide in spades throughout Anatomy of a Fall. Never mind the fact that Anatomy is also an original work written by Triet and Arthur Harari — the film manipulates the most convenient ways information is handed to the audience in order to further smear the specifics of who is culpable and who is to blame. Decisive cuts away from moments of Sandra and Samuel’s personal discord and back to the trial obfuscate who remains responsible for moments of conflict and even violence, while inside the courtroom, point-of-view shots, close-ups with shallow focus, as well as riveting camera movements and angles train us to focus on the particularities of how the subjects of the trial both perceive and are perceived by others. In a case where information — or more importantly, interpretations of information — reign supreme, Triet airtightly ensures that room for definitive, absolute certainty is impossible to find or glean.

Perhaps another noteworthy tradition of the courtroom drama is its drive for tour-de-force performances; among the pantheon of lead courtroom drama performances proudly stand the likes of Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird, Peter Lorre in the final moments of M, Paul Newman in The Verdict, and now, Sandra Hüller in Anatomy of a Fall. To strike a balance between making the protagonist of a film completely unreadable yet completely understandable is a line to be toed with prolific skill, yet Hüller executes that balance to intense effect with every moment she is thrust into the spotlight, facing the court with a stone-cold demeanor that, regardless of the truth, is already hiding so much about the true nature of her marriage with Samuel. When moments do arrive in which Sandra’s veneer slips — either outside of the courtroom, or via the presentation of pivotal recorded evidence — Hüller makes it so that they emerge with earth-shattering force, giving us brief yet truly unforgettable glimpses into the gamut of emotional extremity and turmoil boiling within her throughout her marriage and the trial.

The supporting cast around Hüller, no doubt, is also deeply impressive, among the highlights being Arlaud’s determined lawyer Vincent, with his rational dedication to proving Sandra’s innocence, or Theis’s portrayal of the indignant Samuel, a man whose similarly heightened emotional turmoil towards the end of his life is either a hallmark of a man who fought to his death, or a man who only had so much left in him to spend before ending it all himself. But Milo Machado Graner, the young talent portraying Sandra and Samuel’s son, Daniel, brings a truly heartrending dimension to the case — that of the son who has to contend with the divide between facing a monstrous, murderous mother, or the horrific reality of a violently dissolving marriage. In the final hours of the trial, as the focus of the case slowly pivots to the fallout of Sandra and Samuel’s marriage, Graner displays a shocking level of emotional nuance rarely seen in actors of his age, impressively layering on a dark yet deeply necessary function to portraying the full scope of the damage Sandra and Samuel have both done.

And yet, the verdict — the final tradition of any noteworthy legal case and courtroom drama — is easily the most obscured part of Anatomy of a Fall, so much so that the driving force of the story gradually shifts from finding what exactly the truth of the situation is, to examining why exactly the death occurred in the first place. The film’s ultimate strength is how it uses the trial not as a vehicle of justice, but as a legal and investigative means of how a supposedly lifelong bond turns catastrophically sour over the course of several years, reframing what could have been a deeply personal narrative through the lens of the cold proceedings of the law. The dissonance and tension that emerges as a result, both from the processions of a trial that feels like a powder keg on the edge, as well as the clash between two truths presented by both defense and prosecution, is one that can only come about from a filmmaker, cast, and crew in nothing short of full formal control. Anatomy of a Fall is a rare and exceptional feat, destined to be inducted into the hall of great courtroom dramas — a film that understands how to wield and subvert the subgenre’s best aspects to unsettling effect, ultimately understanding that perhaps the true priority in a suspicious death like this, whatever its cause may be, is the fact that it decisively culminated a lifetime of anguish.

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