The opening scene of Anatomy of a Fall achieves a rare, special kind of disorientation, one baffling enough to make the viewer question reality. Did I arrive late? I wondered, even though I knew I’d been sitting in the theater when the house lights had gone down minutes prior. Sandra (played by Sandra Hüller), a writer, is being interviewed in her home by a graduate student about her work. But it’s nigh impossible to parse the questions and answers, or the subtly flirty vibes between interviewer and interviewee, because loud music is blasting all through the house, something they try to ignore but eventually acknowledge as insurmountable, postponing the conversation until later.
Sandra’s husband, Samuel (Samuel Theis), is working upstairs in the attic, playing music on a huge speaker, but we don’t see him, and his motivation for such obnoxiousness is never explained. If Sandra is annoyed, she barely shows it; the viewer mostly identifies with the poor graduate student, mercifully excused from a dynamic loaded with tension. Only as Anatomy of a Fall progresses does it become clear that this opening scene exists not to land a confusing blow, but to dump a puzzle in the viewer’s lap: an emotional mystery that ends in Samuel’s shocking and seemingly inexplicable death.
This movie, Justine Triet’s Palme d’Or–winning thriller, co-written by Triet and Arthur Harari, is somewhat of a whodunit. After this bizarre interview gets cut short, Sandra and Samuel’s blind teenage son, Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), takes a walk through their French mountain town with his seeing-eye dog. When he returns, he finds his father sprawled on the snow, dead, having fallen from the attic and suffered a blow to the head. Sandra is swiftly arrested as the only suspect, and a court case ensues, with Sandra striving to prove her innocence and get to the bottom of what exactly happened to her husband.
But Triet, wisely, does not approach the movie as a fictional facsimile of a true-crime tale, a sifting of forensic evidence and police examination. Rather, this is an emotional excavation, one that seeks to untangle the strange mess of clues laden in that opening scene. What could cause a partnership to deteriorate into such awkward hostility, and are those marital resentments enough to explain someone’s death? Triet’s movie has elements of lurid, intimate courtroom dramas from the early ’90s, such as Presumed Innocent and Reversal of Fortune. But it has a streak of art-house intellectualism, turning past arguments over household responsibilities or creative frustration into nail-biting thrill rides.
The film’s greatest strength is Hüller, a German actor probably best known for her wonderful leading work in the comedy Toni Erdmann. Hüller manages to portray Sandra as a total enigma while retaining the audience’s sympathy throughout. She appears baffled by her husband’s death and insists that she wasn’t involved, but is also clearly hiding all kinds of problems in their relationship, afraid that they’d implicate her even more were they revealed. A celebrated author and polyglot who deftly switches between German, French, and English while she’s being interrogated on the stand, she’s the kind of heroine that’s easy to root for but just as easy to envision being at the center of a dramatic twist.
Triet teases out details in flashback through the long and involved ceremony of the French legal system. It’s a curious setup that I can describe only as a sort of extended town hall, one where defense attorney, prosecutor, judge, and witness are invited to cross-talk at all times. Sarcasm is welcome; badgering the defendant is practically encouraged. To an American viewer like myself, it’s a boundlessly fascinating window into a different courtroom culture, but it’s also a terrific narrative vehicle, allowing Triet to dive into the tense history of Sandra and Samuel’s marriage—and their respective relationships with Daniel—as everyone struggles to get to the truth.
The compelling crux of the movie lies in that opening scene, and in how so many crimes rest on guesses at people’s emotional states, parsing nuances and packaging them into accusations. Some of the details of Sandra and Samuel’s marriage are specific—they’re both writers, but she is the far more successful one, which has led to resentment over the years. They’re both racked with guilt over their son becoming blind after an accident but are processing it in different ways. Still, these are all essentially universal pressures: marital strife, parental stress, work anxiety. Triet skillfully spins the viewers’ sympathy into a worst-case scenario, literally putting these feelings on trial, and it serves to compound the excitement. It’s a simple question, really: What if a domestic drama got crossed with a courtroom thriller? Anatomy of a Fall is the glorious answer.