Winning the Cannes Film Festival’s top prize, the Palme d’Or (as well as its most adorable prize – the Palm Dog Award), puts a lot of pressure on Anatomy of a Fall to live up to some higher standard. Fortunately, director/co-writer Justine Triet’s deliberately paced courtroom drama is quite compelling. Working as both an intriguing mystery and an examination of how humanity impacts perception and thought, this is the sort of film designed to provoke further thought and deeper conversation after the movie ends. While perhaps not as flashy as other upcoming dramas for the 2023 award season, it gets plenty of mileage out of the compelling work from all involved.
Sandra (Toni Erdmann’s Sandra Hüller) is a German writer living with her husband (Samuel Theis) in his hometown in France. They have an 11-year-old blind son (Milo Machado-Graner). The husband is found dead in the snow under mysterious circumstances, leading to suspicion of Sandra and her eventual arrest. A trial follows, leading to efforts to prove her innocence, revealing many details about her marriage for all.
In terms of human-based dramas set in the real world and relying on a few unclear details to generate a lot of discussion concerning where the truth lies, I look to Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi as the modern filmmaker delivering top-tier features in this regard. However, while his films rely on discussions generally centered around social and class structures, Anatomy of a Fall sets its sights on understanding behavior and the limits of relationships. Cultural norms also play a role, which speaks more to how language becomes an interesting obstacle for these characters.
At 150 minutes, this is a long film, though never without purpose when considering all that takes place. The first third provides plenty of setup without revealing what happened with the husband, Samuel. Most of the film is set around the trial, which allows the film to do a variety of things. First, and selfishly, not being too familiar with European judicial systems, it’s interesting to see how a trial works in France.
Last year’s Saint Omer gave me a good idea, and this film spends even more time on the almost conversational ways a defendant, their lawyers, the prosecutor, and the judge operate. By nature of this portrayal, the prosecutor (Antoine Reinartz) shines in the way his tenacity for making Sandra look guilty leaves the audience with a bad taste, even though he could very well be in the right for making his case.
Sandra’s lawyer (Swann Arlaud) is a significant counter, as we can clearly register his doubts about Sandra’s version of vents outside the court. Still, we can applaud how he similarly uses the power of logic and interpretation of facts to defend her. As stated, this film heavily relies on learning about people through language, word choices, and more outside of specific contexts. As a result, it can be confusing and manipulated to serve certain interests. It’s also why people can be so fascinating.
This is the other aspect of what a courtroom setting can accomplish. We are given so much information regarding Sandra that defines her identity. There are questions regarding her writing, sexuality, morality, and efforts as a wife and mother to paint a portrayal of who she is. While Triet seems to want us to side with Sandra based on framing and other directorial touches, we can hear and see for ourselves how emotion (or a lack thereof, depending on how evidence is presented) can deliver certain types of understandings concerning the description of past events, the fallout of certain actions, and other developments that shape this trial. It’s exciting stuff that is effectively captivating without needing extraneous camp elements John Grisham would be happy to deploy.
Key to all of this is Hüller’s excellent lead performance. While clearly emotional, she maintains a calm and collected disposition, making the attempts to exasperate her all the more absorbing. Watching Hüller portray a character who clearly had a rocky relationship means seeing the performer show all the work that went into building someone who gets what’s needed across to make the history feel real, as well as processed with enough time for a trial to be a crucial step in showing how Sandra has both coped with the death and prepared for intense probing.
This is also where language comes into play, as Sandra is German and not nearly fluent enough in French to keep a dialogue going for extended periods. English becomes the middle ground, but different characters assume different roles in accepting what Sandra can do versus relying on translations. While not explicitly called out all the time, one can feel the tensions that build up do to this separation between characters.
In the assembly of this film, one can see the minimalist approach Triet relies on this story from a visual sense. There are choices regarding the perspective of a given scene, including an extended sequence that switches from a recorded conversation to a view of the parties involved in this discussion. However, this is still a linear feature that’s not concerned with doing more than it must to convey the emotion of a given scene. There is almost no score in place for a vast majority of the film, and even the attempts to show glimpses of scenes that could have occurred do little to heighten this story any more than needed.
Without delving too far into the kind of resolution this film has, I will offer this – it’s the right choice. Whether or not there are stunning revelations or anything that allows for “the right push” needed to wrap up this case, the results and the fallout stand to reason that Triet’s intentions were purely character-focused. There’s also the added benefit of considering one’s psyche given the situation and what that says about someone’s past and future. It was easy to look at Cate Blanchett’s Lydia Tár as a companion character in many ways, not because of how close they are in terms of actions but in how they stand out when considering societal expectations.
All of this is to say that Anatomy of a Fall provides an assortment of reasons to be intrigued by what this story and these characters offer. It’s a well-made movie that stresses its cinematic nature as much as needed without setting its sights as far as ambition will go. And yet, it’s not as though this movie doesn’t look great or can’t function without more pizazz. Its strengths are in its performances, the writing, and how it makes interpretations (misunderstandings or otherwise) of speech and behavior very relatable. It’s a trial worth seeking out.