Did he fall or was he pushed? Not a very original pitch, let’s admit. But Anatomy of a Fall, Justine Triet’s superb psychological thriller which this year won the Palme d’Or, the top prize at Cannes, makes all previous such posers seem trivial. She never gives us an answer – and it seems she never told her cast while making it either.
The mise en scène is over and done with before the opening credits. Slightly tipsy German novelist Sandra Voyter (the tremendous Sandra Hüller) is being interviewed, in English, in her house in the French Alps by winsome grad student Zoé (Camille Rutherford). Their conversation is soon made impossible, though, by thunderously annoying music being played on a loop upstairs – a steel drum version of 50 Cent’s “PIMP”. It’s her husband, Samuel, working on the top floor, Sandra explains. They try to chat a bit more but then give up. Zoé leaves, Sandra heads upstairs.
We’ve already briefly met Daniel (Milo Machado Graner), the couple’s visually impaired 11-year-old son, giving his lovely guide dog, a Border collie named Snoop, a bath. Now the pair go out for a walk in the snow. When they return to the house, where the music is still blaring, Snoop immediately alerts Daniel to a body on the ground outside, in a splatter of blood. “Papa!” Daniel shrieks in recognition. Then: “Mama!”
The police arrive. There’s an initial post-mortem. Samuel was killed by a deep wound to the head received before he hit the ground. “We cannot yet determine if the injury resulted from a collision or a blow, accidental or deliberate,” the investigator says.
These first ten or so minutes alone are such terrific film-making, so well acted, so well edited, shot close-up in such an intense quasi-documentary style, that we’re hooked. Anatomy of a Fall is another very long movie, two hours and 30 minutes, but it grips all the way. Sandra Hüller (also acclaimed at Cannes for her role in Jonathan Glazer’s Holocaust drama The Zone of Interest) gives a terrific performance as Voyter, forceful and direct without ever actually being likeable, a self-denial few actors enjoy.
We see her, even before she has been charged, rehearsing her defence with her lawyer, Vincent (a marvellously ambiguous performance by Swann Arlaud), with whom she has evidently had some kind of previous relationship. An accidental fall would be hard to argue, he tells her, as would be a stranger murder. Suicide looks the best defence. “I did not kill him,” she insists. “That’s not the point – really,” he replies.
The key witness can only be Daniel, a gentle, melancholy boy. He says he heard his parents arguing, but not angrily, before he left the house – but a re-enactment suggests he could not have heard voices at all over that horrible racket. Repeated re-enactments of the fall with a dummy body are inconclusive too. Meanwhile, we learn that Daniel’s blindness is due to an accident when he was four, which occurred when his father failed to collect him from school, a trauma that fractured the couple.
Indicting Sandra, the prosecutor reveals that the police have recovered a recording that Samuel secretly made of a vicious row the pair had the evening before he died. Sandra angrily rejects it as evidence: “It’s not reality – it’s our voices, but that’s not who we are.” Her lawyer tells her again that a trial is not about the truth.
That trial takes place a year later in Grenoble, a courtroom drama more extended and informal than those in US or British productions. When the recording of the quarrel is played, we get the only flashback in the whole film, as Sandra and Samuel tear at each other over sex and fidelity, where they live, the language they speak, and about the time they give or deny each other for work. It is one of the most harrowing marital battles ever dramatised (Anatomy of a Fall was written by Triet with her partner, Arthur Harari). Daniel, in court, hears it all, his face registering all his pain and confusion. At this late stage, we begin to understand that he is the emotional centre of the film, and that it is his decision about what he will say that matters most.
Anatomy of a Fall works brilliantly as a Hitchcockian thriller for today, but it has depths and resonances beyond the genre. We all construct our stories; they’re always partial; we never fully know each other. Mid-trial, Sandra interrupts a therapist giving his interpretation of the couple’s dynamic: “What you say is just a little part of the whole situation. Sometimes a couple is a kind of chaos and everybody is lost, no?” Sometimes?
“Anatomy of a Fall” is out on 8 November
[See also: David Hockney’s clumsy late style]
This article appears in the 08 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Fury