Anatomy of a Fall, Justine Triet’s Golden Palm-winning drama, might equally be called Anatomy of a Marriage. It’s about a couple, Sandra, played by Sandra Hüller, and Samuel, played by Samuel Theis, along with their son Daniel, played by Milo Machado-Graner. Samuel is a struggling writer, whereas Sandra is a successful writer. The events of the film are set in motion when Daniel finds his father lying on the snow at the front of their chalet-styled home. Sandra promptly calls the police but by the time they arrive it’s too late to save Samuel, who is pronounced dead from blunt injury. However, the position of his body, and the nature of his wounds, don’t tally with an accidental fall, begging the question of whether Sandra pushed him from the balcony of his study on the top floor of their house. An investigation and trial quickly ensue, in which Sandra retains lawyer and old friend Vincent, played by Swann Arlaud, to defend herself against the charge of murder. As the case proceeds, more details about Sandra and Samuel’s relationship comes to light, complicating the question of her culpability.
In other words, Anatomy of a Fall largely exists on the cusp between Sandra’s personal and private life, an uneasy position to occupy for the duration of a two and a half hour film. We’re immersed in this cusp in the very first scene, which also happens to be the only scene set in the present in which Samuel is still alive, although we don’t see him directly. Instead, the script opens with Sandra being interviewed in her home about her writing career. As she reflects on the inevitability of intertwining art and life, steel drum music starts to percolate down from somewhere upstairs and obscure the dialogue. She explains to the interviewer that it is just her husband’s music, and continues with her reflections. However, when the music is compounded by white noise, and then by the stomping of feet, it deforms the tonality of the scene so drastically that Sandra is forced to concede that her husband is deliberately trying to sabotage the interview. Accordingly, she reschedules it for another time, at which point we cut to an equally atonal and angular credit sequence. As a few piano keys are abrasively struck, we’re presented with a montage of photographs of the family, each of which seems to be taken at the very moment at which the subject they realised they were being photographed, but just before they could compose themselves for this public record.
Both the interview sequence and the credit sequence pave the way for a film and marriage that exists almost entirely at the jagged public-private threshold that constitutes so much contemporary life. To some extent, this is embedded in the structure of the family and the sheer presence of the actors. As Sandra and Samuel, Hüller and Theis are the only actors who share the same name as their characters. We also learn that Samuel is French and Sandra is German, and that they have compromised by living in Grenoble, but speaking English as a third language at home. Every utterance feels slightly performative, or like a slight compromise of the very different publics that produced them, and this is only enhanced by the fact that their son Daniel is almost entirely blind. As such, he’s both more distant and more attuned to the dynamics of the household, seeing less but perhaps perceiving more than a child with eyesight. It is his piano playing that we hear in the opening credits, and that ushers in the strange thresholds between private and public that preoccupy the film to come.
Samuel’s death only intensifies this situation, since he falls from his most private and privileged space on the top floor of the chalet (Sandra later remarks that she barely goes up there) to the public entrance to the house, where the position of his body is further accentuated by the fresh snow. As a result, the trial that ensues plays more as a policing of the private-public boundaries of the couple rather than as a traditional forensic investigation. In effect, it’s a trial of the marriage, closer to a show trial in spirit, and often verging on farce, as a carnivalesque prosecutor only credited as “The Lawyer,” played by Antoine Renartz, flings one ridiculous accusation after another at Sandra, assisted by the outrageous testimony of Samuel’s psychiatrist, all overseen by a remote figure who is only credited as “The President.”
This trial, which quickly grows so operatic as to exceed any procedural plausibility, involves two key phases. The first involves the relationship between Samuel and Sandra – specifically, an argument they had shortly before they died. It turns out that Samuel periodically recorded exchanges with his wife, usually covertly and without her permission, partly as an expression of his general animosity, but partly as the ingredients for a proposed experimental novel. He actually sent some of these fragments to a publisher shortly before his death, but didn’t receive the artistic adulation he was expecting. To complicate that public-private spillover further, we learn that Sandra’s most successful novel was based on a sequence that Samuel had planned for a novel he never ended up writing. While he gave her permission to use the sequence, and her own novel eventually ballooned far beyond it, they never arrived at a common understanding of whether, or to what extent, this constituted plagiarism. Finally, on top of all that, this final argument that Samuel records itself revolves around the couple’s own public and private time, what they give to their family and what they reserve for themselves.
This brings us to the second component of the trial, namely the relationship between Sandra, Samuel and Daniel as a family unit. We find out that Samuel insisted on home schooling Daniel, partly out of guilt for allowing him to have the accident that left him almost blind at the age of four. Likewise, we discover that Sandra has always blamed Samuel for this, and that Samuel resents her blame, all of which Daniel hears for the first time when he is in attendance as a material witness at the trial. The very fact of him being a material witness also means that he can’t be at home alone with Sandra on the weekend before the verdict comes down. A court-appointed supervisor moves in, and when Daniel expresses the need for personal space, Sandra is compelled to move out, leaving nobody but her son, and an anonymous administrative figure, in the house she and Samuel tried to make a family home.
The point of Anatomy of a Fall is thus not to arrive at a specific forensic conclusion but to dig ever deeper into these jagged public-private thresholds. In doing so, Triet asks the audience to consider how much of their own lives, and relationships, take place at the same nexus. The film even follows suit in its hybrid textuality, since this could easily be a play as much as a film, unfolding almost entirely in the chalet and courtroom, much as the opening shot of a ball rolling down a staircase extends this film-theatre fusion into the televisual space of The Staircase, another text that seems to unfold almost entirely at the point where its subject’s personal feelings become public, or public persona is deformed by private access. Yet for all this timeliness and resonance, I came away feeling that Anatomy of a Fall was a bit ludicrous, and perhaps even a bit basic, especially for a Golden Palm winner. Visually, I didn’t find much to distinguish it from a Sunday night telemovie, while the themes are so beaten into the audience that it all starts to feel like an inert screenplay by the end, despite Hüller’s incredible presence as an actor. In the end, it’s hard to separate it from the very public-private matrix it describes – to extricate a fairly average film from the adulation of the Cannes media machine.