The ensuing days after a romantic breakup, even if it isn’t a cataclysmic one, are an uncanny time. Perhaps once the spell of verbal conflict and sparring’s ceased, suddenly your sole companion for the most intimate thoughts is yourself once again, but it’s an opportune moment for contemplation: how did it really go wrong? Or, can I be honest with myself and acknowledge my own partial responsibility for its demise? For Sandra (Sandra Hüller) and Samuel (Samuel Theis), the key onscreen and offscreen players in Anatomy of a Fall, are enduring this quagmire, although their inevitable breakup was enforced––the latter has just tragically died.
The international title of this film, the fourth feature from rising French auteur Justine Triet, refers to one of the greatest American legal procedurals, Anatomy of a Murder, and it allows Sandra to subject her wrecked marriage to forensic legal scrutiny––the price being her freedom, as she is the prime suspect for his death. It even has a mimic of Duke Ellington’s ear-turning original score for that film, in the continual deployment of one of the year’s most delightful, unexpected music choices: a clanking calypso version of 50 Cent’s ’00s radio hit “P.I.M.P.” The family dog also happens to be called Snoop. Better jokes––film-enhancing ones––ensue, I rest my case.
Triet and co-screenwriter Arthur Harari (also a fine director himself, as well as her own spouse) alight on a specific moment––the exact circumstances of Samuel’s death––before using it to build outwards and meditate on their stormy union overall. First: we know that Sandra is a quite intimidatingly successful writer, and is bisexual and potentially polyamorous despite her marriage; she is first seen being interviewed and engaging in flirtation with a graduate student (Camille Rutherford) who’s writing her thesis on her. Samuel, a less-successful writer and now teacher, saws away on the second floor of their remote cottage high in the Swiss Alps, turning the upper area into an Airbnb. Moments later, whilst never departing from the perspective of Sandra and their 11-year-old son, the sight-impaired Daniel (Milo Machado-Graner), Samuel is soon discovered in a pile of blood on the ground directly in front of their window, the bodily impact of the fall accompanied by a more suspicious gash to the head.
How is Sandra going to get out of this pickle? In this ambiguous array of signs, she has to dispatch him once more by attempting to brand him as suicidal, by unveiling the relationship’s heretofore private and dirty laundry to the court, and by extension, the baying media observing in “trial of the century” mode. Daniel himself is a crucial party in this debate, lending the proceedings a welcome dose of sentiment: he initially alighted upon his father whilst walking in the snow with Snoop, and his auditory abilities are enhanced by his lack of one sense, not to mention his precocious skill at the piano (referenced also in the film’s non-diegetic score). His presence also concentrates the vital context of his own tragic accident as a pre-schooler living in London, where Samuel, productively immersed in his writing, offered his babysitter to pick him up from school, whereby he was hit by an oncoming vehicle. The family’s trajectory has really been set by this incident, with it inspiring their move to the car-phobic Alps and the mere sense of writerly progress from Samuel forever associated with potential neglect.
To get our key players––and Sandra’s dishy defense lawyer Vincent (Swann Arlaud)––in that Paris courtroom, Triet has relied upon this contrived, sometimes preposterous plotting and various dramatic ironies, though this pays dividends in the film’s unique tonal quality. It’s crude to compare Anatomy of a Fall to the incipient wave of Gallic courtroom dramas, including the superlative Saint Omer, and this Cannes’ well-received The Goldman Case (which features Harari in a key role as a lawyer), but it’s a really fresh, French twist on many stale American tropes. The humor is pitch-black: before the trial date is set, various law-enforcement and legal figures descend on the crime scene to determine specifics: from which floor did Samuel fall? What about the velocity and gradient of the fall? And so on. The blood residue in various places is a vital, Holmesian referent, but Sandra cooly states she doesn’t know any “spatter experts.” A surprising, secret audio recording is brought out late in the trial as a sort of “star witness”; the aftermath of the shocking evidence finds Simon Beaufils’ camera abruptly zooming in on the judge, her face frozen in a “well… that just happened” expression.
It’s gratifying to see a new French filmmaker clearly informed by Arnaud Desplechin’s garrulous and dense literary-inflected dramas, and Anatomy of a Fall inspires the most of Triet’s output so far, even if its plotting can be a bit circular and verbose, and the notion of a trial descending into alternating literary criticism of the writer victim and the writer accused is maybe unintentionally twee. Still, it’s an immensely enjoyable, idiosyncratic entertainment.
Anatomy of a Fall premiered at 2023 Cannes Film Festival and will be released by NEON.