If the new mystery ANATOMY OF A FALL had been a film made in Hollywood, the director might very well have goosed the material to emphasize some of the plot points that bent toward the fantastical. Amongst the highlights? A body is discovered, bleeding out in the snow, by a 12-year-old boy. The victim’s wife is bisexual and an author who may have foreshadowed his death in her fiction. A lurid audio tape is discovered and will turn a murder trial on its ear. Oh, and the child who discovered the body also happens to be blind. Drama? More like melodrama.
However, this isn’t an American film, but a French one, and the French tend to do things with much more subtlety. Justine Triet is just that kind of filmmaker, and even though the script she wrote with Arthur Harari has plenty of showy events, her direction of the material remains grounded and nuanced at every turn. As searing as the drama is, it never strains or feels over the top. Instead, ANATOMY OF A FALL is a steady and shrewdly-played film in every scene. The movie is not only a sly courtroom drama, but also a knowing dissertation on marriage, beautifully acted, and easily one of 2023’s very best films.
Triet shows her control over the material in the very first scene. In an interview with a reporter, successful author Sandra Voyter (Sandra Huller) is cordial and open. But as the Q&A goes on, the conversation is usurped by the loud music coming from upstairs. Sandra’s off-screen husband appears to be trying to sabotage his wife’s PR event, and eventually, the volume of the music is so obnoxious that Sandra is forced to postpone the chat. She’s upset, to say the least, but Triet shrewdly chooses not to show any direct confrontation with hubby Samuel (Samuel Theis). In fact, the next time we see Sam, he’s lying in a pool of his own blood as he’s fallen from the third-story window of the family’s French Alps chalet. But was he pushed?
Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner), who discovered the body while out for a walk with the family dog Snoop, is shocked. So is Sandra, even though some of her answers to the police suggest chilly feelings towards her dead hubby. It isn’t long before the cops arrest her for their suspicions and Triet wastes no time in immersing her characters in preparation for the trial.
Sandra’s lawyer is a clever and quiet one named Vincent (Swann Arlaud). The intrepid prosecutor (Antoine Reinartz) is a worthy courtroom foil. And as the testimony spools out, the marriage of Sandra and Samuel is raked across the coals. They were very competitive with each other as both were writers. Other unsavory revelations come out too, and Sandra does as well as she can to explain all of the ugly sides of their marriage. Then a ‘smoking gun’ is introduced – a secretly recorded tape of an argument between the duo – and it occurred just the day before he fell to his icy death.
At this juncture, Triet displays her genius by showcasing two very clever things. First, she flashes back to the actual argument, showing us how the words escalated between Sandra and Samuel into violence. But then, she doesn’t show the end of the fight. Instead, she cuts back to the courtroom where we hear the couple fighting physically, but we can’t quite get a bead on who’s hitting who. It’s frightening, and unnerving, leaving those final blows to be interpreted by the three judges in the courtroom, and by those of us in the audience.
Huller gives an astounding performance throughout, especially in the courtroom scenes and in the flashback. She’s having quite a year as she’s also terrific in THE ZONE OF INTEREST, the WWII movie from Jonathan Glazer that just played at the Chicago International Film Festival a few weeks back. Machado-Graner is remarkably good too in a very tricky part.
The film takes its time, 152 minutes worth, as Triet never shortchanges the ups and downs of the trial. She blends three languages into her dialog too – German, English, and French, making it all the more complex. There’s also a set piece that she masterfully directs involving the dog Snoop that will have you on the edge of your seat. ANATOMY OF A FALL is never showy but it sure makes for one helluva show.