Arts movie review

Putting parental and spousal dynamics on gripping trial in Anatomy of a Fall

Courtroom barbs, domestic disputes, and webs of half-truths and possible lies woven in three different languages make this a well-deserved contender for Best Picture


Anatomy of a Fall 

Directed by Justine Triet

Screenplay by Justine Triet and Arthur Harari

Starring Sandra Hüller, Swann Arlaud, and Milo Machado-Graner

R. In theaters now.

In recent weeks, Jennifer and James Crumbley, the parents of the gunman in Michigan's deadliest school shooting in 2021, were found guilty of manslaughter. Among other things, they gifted their son the pistol used in the shooting, allegedly ignored his mental health red flags, and were found otherwise involuntarily responsible for the massacre. According to the trial coverage, the family's defense lawyer "argued during the trial that parenting could be a messy and unpredictable job and that no mother could be perfect." She stressed that the case was "a very dangerous one for parents."

That sentiment stuck with me for the gripping two-and-a-half-hour runtime of French legal drama and Best Picture nominee Anatomy of a Fall, as the inherently indiscernible and uncertain dynamics between mother and son and wife and (dead) husband are put on the stand in a challenging murder case.

Director Justine Triet opens the film with an odd, somewhat flirty interview between Sandra, a German novelist, and a younger student who admires her work. They're almost immediately interrupted by a comically loud and annoying steelpan rendition of 50 Cent's "P.I.M.P." played upstairs by Sandra's husband, Samuel. The interview comes to an awkward and premature close, the student leaves, Sandra's son goes outside for a walk, and the next thing we know, Samuel is lying dead in the snow in a pool of his own blood. 

Of course, Sandra is immediately the prime suspect. She seeks the help of an old friend, Vincent, who, as a lawyer, advises her that a jury will never believe that the death was an accidental fall. Sandra counters that, Samuel was suicidal, and she believes that he killed himself based on some events and conversations they had six months prior and, unfortunately, never disclosed to anyone else. The eyebrow-raising nature of these assertions, plus their son Daniel's conflicting testimony, in large part thanks to the fact that he's blind, results in Sandra being indicted. 

The film fast-forwards a year to the beginning of the trial, and things really heat up. Highly contentious, beautifully scripted words flurry in the courtroom between the flamboyant government prosecutor, the conservative defense team, the skeptical judge, a worn-down Sandra, and poor Daniel in the audience with a front-row seat to his parents' conflicts, possible infidelity, and deepest fears and insecurities. Daniel's centrality to the case ebbs and flows, but his relationship with his parents and youthful perspective are a powerful force to the simultaneously bold yet murky conclusion. 

Throughout the film's twisting 150 minutes, Triet makes a powerful case for her Best Director nod. Her singular vision is emphatically clear in each scene, and she skillfully employs settings and contexts to keep the picture as exciting as its script, particularly playing with ways to represent truth versus fiction. Audio recordings are cleverly reenacted, characters' flashbacks are thoughtfully narrated, and lawyers' and policemen's examinations of the scene of the crime span many different strategies. 

Moreover, Triet's script, co-written with Arthur Harari, is genius, creating a plot in which every scene is open to interpretation by both the characters themselves and the audience watching. The reenacted audio recording, for example — which could have been open-and-shut evidence in less deft hands — creates more questions than answers. Anatomy of a Fall also avoids the classic movie magic trouble of courtroom mysteries, forcing an increased suspension of disbelief as the trial goes on. ("There's no way that a piece of evidence that significant wouldn't come up until the last day!" I have often complained at the screen.) In this script, though, when these moments occur (such as in the final testimony), they feed into the central theme of chosen truths versus actual reality. What really happened leading up to the fall is unknowable, so the convenience of various discoveries (like Samuel's pills) feels like a meditation on the message rather than Hollywood deus ex machina.

The script is brought to life by a tremendous cast. At the center of it is Sandra Hüller in a beguiling performance as the (funnily same-named) main character. In handling the complex, uncertain crime and the even greater uncertainty around the trial's outcome, Hüller toes the line between a possible villain playing stupid and a victim disbelieving her own misfortune. Her energy brilliantly differs so much from scene to scene that it evokes Willem Dafoe's legendary three ways of playing the detective in American Psycho. Importantly, Hüller's emotive talent extends across three different languages. As a German who speaks English but lives in France, the linguistic lens adds a further layer of mystique to the central case and her possible guilt. Not being able to speak English around the social worker or being forced to live-translate in her own trial complicates Sandra's innocence as much as the facts of the trial itself. 

Beyond Hüller, strong supporting performances also come from Swann Arlaud as the dedicated and just-flirty-enough defense attorney; Antoine Reinartz as the theatrical and biting prosecutor; Samuel Theis in one fantastic, memorable scene as the deceased husband; Jehnny Beth as a court-appointed guardian who delivers one of the most important lines of the entire movie; and, perhaps most critically, 15-year-old Milo Machado-Graner in a total star-making role as the literal embodiment of Blind Justice. 

Ultimately, the questions Anatomy of a Fall raises about truth, fairness, and culpability will stay with you for weeks after a watch and resonate with the real moral gray areas of family life and relationships.