Riveting French film Anatomy of a Fall is not your usual whodunit
The majority of filmmakers like to give their viewers concrete answers, especially when it comes to stories involving a crime. But that is not the approach taken in Anatomy of a Fall, a riveting new film from French writer/director Justine Triet.
Right from the start, Triet and co-writer Arthur Harari play with perspective in sussing out the death of Samuel Maleski (Samuel Theis), who’s found dead from a head wound outside his French chalet by his blind son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), and his wife, Sandra (Sandra Hüller).
Despite being in the house at the time of Samuel's fall from somewhere in the house’s upper stories, Sandra claims no knowledge of what happened to him. Authorities are skeptical of her ignorance, and charge her with murder. Represented by her friend/lawyer Vincent Renzi (Swann Arlaud) at the trial, Sandra continues to proclaim her innocence, and the prosecution does their best to pick apart her story, even putting Daniel on the stand.
At no point in the film’s 152-minute running time do Triet and Harari tip the scales in favor of one point of view over another. Instead, the film lives fully up its title, fully examining the circumstances leading up to Samuel’s death, as well as the somewhat turbulent life the family of three led. The film begins with Sandra being interviewed about her work as a writer, a seemingly benign scene that takes on extreme importance as the film goes along (a deafening steel drum version of 50 Cent’s “P.I.M.P.,” of all things, plays a crucial part).
While the accident/crime is what the story revolves around, much of what makes the movie so interesting is that Triet only deals in the aftermath and, occasionally, flashbacks to before the incident. That and multiple other aspects are subject to lots of speculation in court, but it’s the lack of clarity that keeps the viewer engaged. In one of the film’s best scenes, we are shown most of an argument between Samuel and Sandra that exists only in audio form for those in the court, but when things become truly heated, Triet goes back to the court for audio only, leaving everyone just guessing as to what actually happened in that room.
Other small details color and enrich the story. While both Samuel and Sandra are writers, Sandra’s success – perhaps at the expense of Samuel – causes a rift. Daniel going blind following him being hit by a motorcycle has also been a source of strain. But one aspect unique to this family and setting is the use of different languages. Samuel is French and Sandra is German, but they mostly use English with Daniel, and Sandra using English in court raises the ire of the French officials.
The acting in the film is also top-notch. Hüller plays her character in such a way that she can be read as both conniving and completely honest, a paradox that suits the story perfectly. Graner pulls off a tricky part very well, showing a skill level beyond his years. The courtroom scenes pop thanks to the performances of Arlaud and Antoine Reinartz, each of whom makes their case seem plausible.
Anatomy of a Fall is not so much a whodunit, but a deep dive into how and why such a thing ever happened in the first place. It’s a great family drama, a great courtroom movie, and a great film overall, and deserves to be on the list of the best of the year.
Anatomy of a Fall opens in select theaters on October 27.